Family, friends, fans and fierce rivals turn out to watch what is likely Rafael Nadal's final French Open performance (2024)

The tennis career of the greatest clay court player the sport has seen may well be over after Rafael Nadal was beaten by Alexander Zverev in the first round at the French Open.

The6-3, 7-6(7/5), 6-3 loss to the fourth seed was only the second time in 19 attempts that Nadal lost a match at Roland Garros before the quarterfinals.

The 14-time champion was watched on Court Philippe Chatrier by fans from around the world and tennis royalty including Novak Djokovic, IgaŚwiątek and Carlos Alcaraz, waving goodbye for what is likely the final time.

"If it's the last time that I played here, I am at peace with myself," Nadal said.

The noise on the court was loud and relentless, a chorus of thousands belting out "Ra-fa! Ra-fa!" whenever he found the occasional moment of brilliance to remind them of any of his 14 runs to the crown in Paris.

The 15,000 or so on hand roared their support when Nadal stepped out onto the court and continued to do so for every act thereafter, no matter how mundane or regulation.

Family, friends, fans and fierce rivals turn out to watch what is likely Rafael Nadal's final French Open performance (1)

It is the first time in his long and illustrious career that Nadal has been beaten in two consecutive matches on clay courts — he lost to Hubert Hurkacz at the Italian Open on May 11 — and the first time he has dropped a match earlier than the fourth round at the French Open (he exited in the third round due to walkover in 2016).

He had indicated 2024 likely would be his last season before retirement, but said before the match he is not 100 per cent sure he will not play again at the French Open. And he reiterated that after Monday's defeat, only his fourth in 116 career matches at the place.

"It's difficult for me to talk," said the Spaniard, whose young son, Rafael Jr, sat on his mother's lap in the stands.

"I don't know (if) it's going to be the last time I am here. I am not 100 per cent sure."

Family, friends, fans and fierce rivals turn out to watch what is likely Rafael Nadal's final French Open performance (2)

While Nadal said it is doubtful he will enter Wimbledon, which he won twice and starts on July 1, he did note that he hopes to return to Roland Garros later that month when the Paris Olympics' tennis competition will be held at the French Open's site.

The 22-time grand slam champion was simply unable to play at his usual level after 18 months of hip and abdominal injuries as evidenced by the match ending, in anticlimactic fashion, with a trademark lasso forehand flying wide and long.

"I tried everything to be ready for this this tournament for almost 20 years and today," he said.

"The last two years I have been going through probably the toughest process in my tennis career with the dream to come back here and at least I did.

"I mean, I lost, but that's part of the business."

That has historically not been the case for Nadal in France, but on this day it was.

Family, friends, fans and fierce rivals turn out to watch what is likely Rafael Nadal's final French Open performance (3)

Nadal, who turns 38 next week, has been limited to 16 matches and an 8-8 record since the start of last year.

His infrequent play dropped his ranking to 275 in the world and he was unseeded for the French Open for the first time; indeed, he'd never been anything worse than the sixth seed in 18 previous appearances, going back to his days as a teenager when he kicked off his first run of four straight crowns from 2005 to 2008.

That is why Nadal ended up facing the fourth-seeded Zverev, the runner-up at the 2020 US Open, a gold medallist at the Tokyo Olympics and the only man to reach the semifinals in Paris each of the past three years.

Nadal's other on-court losses at Roland Garros came against Robin Soderling in 2010 and against Novak Djokovic in 2015 and 2021.

"At least I was able to play four tournaments; that means a lot to me," he said.

"I mean, it doesn't matter. I don't need to talk about how tough everything was because if we balance out all the things that happened in my tennis career or in my life, the positive moments are much heavier.

"I enjoyed everything because of tennis. I lived experiences I never could imagine without playing this beautiful sport. And I had much more success than I ever could dream of.

"I had injuries, yes. I had tough moments, yes. But on the other hand, I enjoyed incredible emotional and positive moments that I am so grateful and I feel very lucky for all of that."

Occasionally, when Nadal was able to come up with the goods and get the better of Zverev, he would yell "Vamos!" and throw that celebratory uppercut that became so familiar.

His numerous and vocal supporters would respond in kind, thrusting their fists in the air right along with him, or shaking their red-and-yellow Spanish flags or clapping to the beat of a drum.

If Nadal put a ball into the net or sailed one wide or long, the groans of disappointment filled the chilly air.

"The amount of feelings I had on this amazing court during my entire tennis career is amazing. But now I'm 28," Nadal said, then paused and corrected himself with a chuckle: "Well, no, 38. I would love to be 28."

Addressing the fans directly, Nadal said: "The feelings that you made me feel here are unbelievable. I really hope to see you again, but I don't know. Merci beaucoup."

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