Rafael Nadal lost in the French Open singles for only the fourth time in 116 matches

Jonathan Jurejko
BBC Sport journalist at Roland Garros

45 minutes ago

Rafael Nadal’s return to the French Open – and possible farewell – ended at the first hurdle as the 14-time champion lost in straight sets to German fourth seed Alexander Zverev.

Nadal has become synonymous with Roland Garros but, in front of a partisan crowd baying for a Spanish victory, the 37-year-old could not replicate the level which has made him almost unbeatable on the Paris clay.

The 22-time Grand Slam winner was beaten 6-3 7-6 (7-5) 6-3 by the in-form Zverev.

Nadal indicated when he missed last year’s French Open that the 2024 season could be his final one on tour because of injury.

However, he cannot now be “100%” certain he will not continue, but does concede it is a “good chance” this will be his final French Open.

Nadal arrived on Court Philippe Chatrier – the scene of many of the finest moments of his career – to a thunderous reception from a packed stadium.

While nowhere near his scintillating best, the former world number one showed flashes of the brilliance that has made him so loved.

But it was not enough to stringently test the 27-year-old Zverev, who played with a measure of control throughout.

It was only Nadal’s fourth defeat in 116 singles matches at Roland Garros and Zverev became the third man – after Robin Soderling in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in 2015 and 2021 – to beat him there.

“I don’t know if it’ll be the last time I’m going to be here in front of you, if it is I have enjoyed it,” Nadal said in an on-court speech.

“The crowd have been amazing the whole week. For me it’s so special to feel the love of the people the way I have felt.”

With some fans crying in the stands, Nadal departed to another standing ovation as the Parisian crowd showed their appreciation for the clay-court Grand Slam’s finest champion.

Nadal falls short after tough draw

Anticipation for Nadal’s return had been frenzied all day, with fans of the iconic champion – easily identified through Spanish red and yellow flags and ‘Gracias Rafa’ T-shirts – milling around the arena from as soon as the gates opened.

As recently as last month, after a dismal defeat by Hubert Hurkacz in Rome, Nadal had not even been sure if he would be ready to compete at the place which he has dominated.

In a bullish pre-tournament news conference on Saturday, Nadal said he quickly found the motivation to return and felt his practice session showed he could “play against anyone”.

Practice is very different to a match, of course. Nadal knew that and knew he faced a monumental task against Zverev.

With the 275th-ranked Nadal unseeded at Roland Garros for the first time, having barely played because of injury in the past 18 months, it left him vulnerable to facing a leading player when the draw was made last week.

Zverev is considered one of the finest not to have won a major title and, being a strong clay-court player, stands a good chance of finally joining the pantheon of Grand Slam-winning champions over the next fortnight.

He reached the 2022 French Open semi-finals, retiring against Nadal after a nasty fall which led to a serious ankle injury, and tuned up for Roland Garros by winning the Rome title earlier this month.

Zverev insists a court case over domestic abuse allegations, which will start in Berlin later this week, will not distract him from the task of becoming a major champion.

The way in which he played against Nadal reiterated why he is among the favourites.

How the match unfolded

An ominous start for Nadal saw Zverev break in the first game of the match, with a poor drop shot into the net and a double fault from the Spaniard heavily contributing.

Each mistake by Zverev early on was cheered by the pro-Nadal crowd and, after saving two break points for a 3-1 lead, the German exerted his control in dominant service games before breaking again for the set.

That considerably flattened the previously buoyant mood.

Nadal, playing with more aggression and intensity, raised hope again by moving into a 4-2 lead in the second set.

But as quickly as belief increased, Zverev took it away.

The Olympic champion remained calm and composed, upping his level in the 10th game to break back with some precise ball-striking which Nadal could not cope with.

The gravitas of the occasion was illustrated by Nadal’s great rival Djokovic – along with defending women’s champion Iga Swiatek and Wimbledon men’s champion Carlos Alcaraz – appearing in the stands to watch.

Like the second set, they watched Nadal move a break up in the third before buckling again under more pressure as Zverev stormed back from 2-1 down to 4-3 in front.

Nadal, as he has always done in his illustrious career, refused to give up and created two break points in the eighth game, but Zverev continued to trust his shots and came through in a strong finish.

“The first round wasn’t the ideal one, but I was competitive, I had my chances,” said Nadal.

“But it was not enough against a great player.”