Nadal exits French Open in farewell-like defeat

Rafael Nadal exited what could be his last French Open to an outpouring of love and support with a first-round defeat by Alexander Zverev, wishing to be back at Roland Garros for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

"I hope to see you again, but I don't know," Nadal told an ecstatic crowd after crashing to a straight sets loss, 6-3 7-6(5) 6-3, against fourth seed Alexander Zverev on Monday (local time).

"There's a big percentage I will not be back here but I am not 100% sure. I hope to be back on this court for the Olympics, that motivates me."

It will the third time since his debut at Roland Garros in 2005, that Nadal, whose body has been martyred by 23 years of professional tennis and who left the tournament with a crushed foot after his record-improving 14th title two years ago, does not get to celebrate his June 3 birthday in Paris when he'll turn 38. 

The French, who tend to arrive on court Philippe Chatrier fashionably late on the back of a long lunch, skipped coffee and digestif to fill the arena before the king, racket in hand as usual, stepped onto the court to deafening roars.

 Rafael Nadal acknowledges the crowd in Paris. Photo: Reuters
Rafael Nadal acknowledges the crowd in Paris. Photo: Reuters
Spain's Nadal stuck to his routine, avoiding the lines and crossing them with his right foot, sprinting to the baseline during warm-up and positioning his two bottles diagonally aimed at the court.

On a rainy day in Paris, organisers closed the roof, adding to the intimacy of the moment.

On a court he knows like no one else, Nadal struggled to find his mark early on, netting a routine drop shot and serving a double fault to give Zverev the opening game.

The German, who after winning the Rome Masters was the worst possible draw for Nadal, kept his foot on the gas pedal to take the first set even if the Mallorcan showed glimpses of his best with a couple of spinning forehand winners down the line.

Alexander Zverev is in great form after winning the Rome Masters. Photo: Reuters
Alexander Zverev is in great form after winning the Rome Masters. Photo: Reuters
As soon as Zverev eased the pressure, however, Nadal converted his first break point to take a 3-2 lead in the second set.

"Rafa! Rafa!" went the crowd, again, as world number ones Iga Swiatek and Novak Djokovic, as well as fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, joined the party.

Nadal served for the set but Zverev levelled and forced a tiebreak, which he comfortably won.

There was another break for Nadal in the third set, and some 'I-can-still-do-it' fist pumps after a few jaw-dropping winners, but two years after Zverev left their semi-final match on a wheelchair with a broken foot, the German was too good this time.

Never far from physical issues in his glittering career, Nadal missed almost all of 2023 with a hip problem and his comeback earlier this year was stalled by a muscle tear, before small niggles affected his preparation for the claycourt major.

"My body has been a jungle for two years. You don't know what to expect. I wake up one day and I find a snake biting me. Another day a tiger," Nadal told a packed press conference following his earliest exit from Roland Garros.

"I've been fighting with all the things that I went through. But the dynamic is positive the last few weeks. I felt ready. I think tomorrow I'll be ready to play again if I have to. But I will not have to.

"So that's the thing. Now, I need to prepare myself, I need to clear my ideas and see what's the new calendar to try to be ready for Olympics. I can't say anything today, but my main goal now is to play the Olympics."

Nadal will be eyeing his third gold medal after triumphing in singles in the 2008 Beijing Games and doubles eight years later in Rio. He had expressed doubts about his fitness ahead of Roland Garos.

The 22-Grand-Slam winner said it would be unwise to prepare for the grasscourt season that follows with a potentially difficult transition back to clay for the Olympics.

"It looks difficult, honestly. For me now I can't confirm what's going on, but it looks difficult to make a transition to grass, having the Olympics again on clay," Nadal said.

"I need to talk with the team. I need to analyse so many facts. But I don't think it's going to be smart after all the things that happened to my body to make a big transition to a completely different surface and then come back to clay.

"Today I feel that's not a good idea, but I can't confirm. But my feelings is even if I'm booked in Wimbledon because I had to, I don't think it's a positive idea right now."

Sinner and  Swiatek through

In other first round matches,  Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner, seeded second, barely broke sweat as he downed American Chris Eubanks in straight sets, just like former runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas did with Hungarian journeyman Marton Fucsovics.

In the women's matches, Swiatek, gunning for a fourth title in Paris, kicked off her campaign with a 6-1 6-2 demolition of French qualifier Leolia Jeanjean.

Swiatek has now won her last 15 matches in the French capital following her back-to-back wins in 2022 and 2023.

Coco Gauff also made a strong start, dispatching German Julia Avdeeva 6-1 6-1 for her 50th Grand Slam match victory.

The 20-year-old American, who won the US Open last year to break her Grand Slam duck, is looking to claim her first French Open title after losing the 2022 final in Paris.