Rafael Nadal cannot escape the fading light in likely French Open farewell

Nadal refused to rule out a return to the French Open next year but it feels like the end is very close now after his straight-sets defeat to fourth seed Alexander Zverev

Kieran Jackson
at Roland Garros
Monday 27 May 2024 18:54 BST
Nadal returns to Roland Garros to practice amid doubts over fitness and form

The prolonged closing chapter of greats, particularly in an arena as inconsistent and undependable as professional sport, is a true tribulation of the mind. It’s like the blowing of a long-standing bulb: you flick the switch – more than once, as many as thrice – in a subconscious instruction to your brain that it cannot be time to recycle and replace. But sometimes there can be no denying the undeniable, no matter how unpalatable. Power is not possible any more.

Yet over the past two decades, nothing has been as consistent and dependable as Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. Eighteen appearances, 14 titles, one king of clay. Domination unparalleled not just in tennis but in the history of sport. His legacy is indisputable, illustrated best by his silver statue on the east side of the complex. Yet ultimately, nobody fools Father Time.

And so it came to pass that, after 116 matches, Nadal lost in week one at the French Open for the first time. Handed the toughest first-round draw possible – against the tour’s most in-form, injury-free player – Alexander Zverev packed a punch to brutally dismiss any notion of a glorious swansong, triumphing 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

Two years on from rupturing ankle ligaments under the Philippe-Chatrier roof, as Nadal progressed to what surely will be his final title in Paris, the German earned his stripes in the same setting and put his name in the history books. For Novak Djokovic (2015, 2021) and Robin Soderling (2009), see Alexander Zverev (2024): men to defeat Rafa on Chatrier.

Come the finale, as modern greats Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek watched on like simple punters, Nadal took centre stage and waved goodbye. Briefly, the sun glinted through the open-plan roof, glistening onto this venue’s omnipresent champion. On a gloomy day in western Paris, it was an apt conclusion.

Rafael Nadal left Court Philippe-Chatrier after only his fourth career defeat at the French Open
Rafael Nadal left Court Philippe-Chatrier after only his fourth career defeat at the French Open (Getty Images)

What now? We know, fitness permitting, it won’t be his final appearance on these courts. Nadal, gold medallist in Beijing 16 years ago, plans to play the Olympic Games this summer and post-match again refused to rule out returning to his favourite grand slam next year. Yet, in all honesty, and in a similar vein to Andy Murray’s defeat last night, it felt like the fire – and the fumes – had finally been put out. He also later confirmed in his press conference that he doesn’t think he will play Wimbledon in a month’s time.

Nadal, seven days shy of 38, entered his home from home to the most explosive of collective cheers. If we didn’t know better, with the beat of the drum, the tune of the horn and the unashamedly partisan Parisian crowd on this Monday afternoon in May, it could have been an old-school Davis Cup tie in Spain.

But of course, we do know better. This is Court Philippe-Chatrier: a tennis colosseum of crushed brick surface dominated by one left-handed man from Mallorca for two decades. Nadal had only lost three of his previous 115 matches in this tournament yet the 14-time champion came into this first-round clash ranked 272 places below the fourth-seeded Zverev. In Nadal’s theatre, with the public paying to see one of the greats, the 27-year-old was the favourite.

And the first point of this three-hour-plus match, under the roof where the pair had vied so gallantly two years ago, summed up the first set. A routine rally: Nadal’s forehand cross-court to Zverev’s backhand cross-court. In years gone by, Nadal’s heavy weight of shot would overpower all that came before it but here, a limp drop shot into the net almost seemed like an early wave of the white flag. In a flash, Zverev broke Nadal to love.

Nadal received a rapturous reception as he walked onto court
Nadal received a rapturous reception as he walked onto court (Getty)
The 14-time champion was wayward too often and spurned some big chances in the second set
The 14-time champion was wayward too often and spurned some big chances in the second set (Getty)

The first set ended with a similar surrender. With Zverev two points away, another Nadal drop shot was brilliantly chased down by the younger, fresher player. Nadal applauded his opponent – sportsman first, athlete second – before clapping again prior to a pivotal first serve. Was it still on his mind? The Spaniard quickly missed on his forehand wing and the first set was gone.

What was clear from the start here, and has been evident since his return in Barcelona last month, is that Nadal’s powers of yesteryear are waning. He knows it, we all know it.

Shots off both the forehand and backhand side regularly failed to pass the service line, triggering Zverev to gleefully gobble up any fresh meat with some booming winners. It took until 68 minutes for Nadal to hit his first ace; an ace which looked like a turning point, as he held serve early in the second and then broke for the first time, celebrating with that iconic leap and pump into the air.

Nadal embraces Alexander Zverev at the net
Nadal embraces Alexander Zverev at the net (Getty)

But when it mattered most, Nadal, serving for the set, was again broken to love. It was crunch time and, for a moment, we were treated to Nadal’s most authoritative attribute: his extraordinary levels of fight. Sheer grit, scraping and screeching his way across the court, adrenaline pumping as the cacophony of noise reached ear-piercing levels.

To a tiebreak they went. A tiebreak Nadal – in his first best-of-five-set match in 16 months – simply had to claim. And again, it’s time to talk about the drop shot.

A tactic regularly, naively, persevered with arguably cost Nadal this breaker. One poorly executed on the backhand wing gifted Zverev two set points. The frustration was palpable and at 6-5, a backhand return into the net from Nadal gave Zverev a lead he would not relinquish.

Of course, Nadal continued to fight. He won a ridiculous, topsy-turvy fifth game on serve. But he was then broken and despite spirited encouragement from the crowd, the light was fading fast. With that famous forehand inside-out flying long, Zverev was victorious in straight sets. He moves on, in search of major No 1.

For Nadal, as per request, there was no heart-wrenching video montage. Instead, just an interview of paradoxes: it felt like the final time, even though he insisted it may not be the final time. Desperate to squeeze every last drop out of a career which has given him, and his fans, the journey of a lifetime, he wants to come back in 2025. Fundamentally, he loves the game, the competition, the battle.

The lightbulb has not quite burnt out but it’s flickering, sporadically, and on the verge of a blackout.

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