Rafael Nadal thrills and moves at Roland Garros: worst defeat on an unforgettable afternoon

Nadal bids farewell to the public in the central stadium at Roland Garros / SEBASTIÁN FEST
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PARIS – No one knows, not even he himself, if this was the end, but Rafael Nadal set a new milestone at Roland Garros on Monday: in what was his worst tournament defeat of his life, the Spaniard thrilled and moved like rarely before on the Parisian clay. Never seen him smile so much in a defeat.

Nadal lost 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 in his debut match against German Alexander Zverev. Never ever in 20 years had the Spaniard been defeated in the opening match of the French Open, a tournament he won 14 times and in which he emerged victorious in 112 of the 116 matches he played.

“I don’t know if this was my last match at Roland Garros, but if it was, I enjoyed it. But I can’t say anything, I’m enjoying it with the family and my body is better than it was two months ago. Maybe in two months I say it’s enough, but I’m motivated by the Olympics in this stadium,” said the Spaniard after the match to a devoted audience.

Rafael Nadal’s 14 titles in the artwork of @periocollages. In 2024, Nadal suffered his worst defeat in the tournament.

Today was also the first time in his career that Nadal has lost two consecutive matches on clay: the defeat to Poland’s Hubert Hurcakz in Rome and today’s loss to Zverev.

Is it the end? The French crowd felt that way throughout the 185-minute match. The spectators followed the match with fervour and anticipatory nostalgia. And the same must have been felt by Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz and Poland’s Iga Swiatek, who found a seat in the stadium and followed the match live. Rarely do the two world number one’s meet in the stands to follow a match, but it was clearly not an ordinary day.

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Nor was it for his most intimate environment, with the Nadal family in full and all the Spanish team in a box following the match that no one dares to say if it was the last in Paris.

Nadal, who until Monday had won seven of the ten times he met Zverev, played with a stiff arm in the first set. Either his drop shots were too short or his drives were too far out of bounds. The Spaniard had chances, but Zverev took the set 6-3. It was raining in Paris and the roof was closed to turn the duel into an indoor match, not exactly the conditions that Nadal would have chosen.

rafael nadal
Everyone wanted a photo of Nadal at Roland Garros // @WESTCOO

With no service or winners in that opening set, Nadal began to loosen up in the second. His shots gained speed, power and angles, the clenched fist and celebratory leaps began to emerge.

He had a golden opportunity, a 5-4 lead and his serve, but he gave up serve at zero. The tie break saw him competitive and with a chance, but Zverev was unforgiving on the most important points. It had been a set of emotions, with Nadal jumping and clenching his fist and the public delivered to a player who gave flashes of that plethoric and invincible that was over nearly two decades.

Would the Spaniard make it to a fifth set? He had been victorious the three previous times he had played five sets on Parisian soil.

There was no fourth, because there were only three sets. Zverev remained calm to stop the outbursts of a Nadal who was releasing his drive and winning angles with the backhand. But the German, recent champion in Rome, is in a very good moment, is today a much more consistent and solid player than Nadal, who on Monday will be 38 years old and has hardly played in the last year and a half.

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There were still some tight fists and some formidable forehands, but the match was slipping away from Nadal’s grasp. And, with him, a lifetime of tennis.

Will he be back in 2025? It is his intention, because this Monday is not the farewell he dreamed of. Only time will tell if 26 minutes past six on the cool and rainy afternoon of 27 May 2024 marked the exact end of the most fabulous story that a tournament has enjoyed since tennis is tennis.

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