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Tennis Super Star Rafael Nadal Loses at Roland Garros 2024 by Alix Ramsay

Photo credit: Roland Garros Facebook

To steal a line from the Rolling Stones: “This could be the last time….” But, like the Rolling Stones, Rafa Nadal does not know.

What he knows for sure is that he is out of Roland-Garros, beaten 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 by Sascha Zverev in three hours and five minutes. But whether that is the last match he will ever play at the French Open, he is not sure. He plans to be back at the Roland Garros stadium in a couple of months for the Olympics but competing again for the Coupe des Mousquetaires? Probably not. But then again…

As the draw was announced last Thursday, no one could quite believe that the 14-time champion had been pitted against the world No.4. Of course, Nadal was unseeded – two years spent trying to recover from a serious hip injury has seen his ranking plummet to No.275 – but he could have drawn someone infinitely more beatable. But no. The fates would not have it.

Down in the press room’s Brit Alley, the gentleman from the Daily Mail asked: “can we say there were audible gasps?” We all nodded. Yes, audible gasps were definitely heard when the draw was published. It made for a headline and a decent intro. But as the news sank in, there was a general feeling of doom. If this was to be Nadal’s last match, no one wanted to see him take an absolute pasting from a younger, fitter man. He deserved better than that.

But then Rafa skipped into the interview room to discuss his situation and his chances. And he was very upbeat: his practice week in Paris had been the best he had felt in two years. He was practising well with everyone and holding his own. He felt he was moving better than he had just the week before. He was having fun travelling with his wife and young son. Life was looking up.

We listened. We were still doom laden. We thought he was whistling in the dark. And then we saw him play Zverev.

To get to the nuts and bolts of the match: Nadal started tentatively – he was broken in the opening game – but then he started to play. As the match moved into the second set, there were times when he looked like the real Rafa – the forehand down the line, the baseline belter of a backhand, the serve out wide to set up the deft volley (his volleying is an often-overlooked weapon in his armoury), the stunning winner and the cry of “Vamos!” and there were even a couple of aces.

He served for the second set but was broken to love; he saved break points at the start of the third set and then broke for a 2-0 lead. He was broken back. Broken again to go 4-3 down, he had two chances to break another time but he could not take them; Zverev was not going to let him. And that was that.

Then again, Zverev came to Paris as the champion of Rome and with 13 competitive, clay court matches behind him. Nadal came here with just 11 competitive matches on any surface since the start of the year (only two were on clay). To be fair to Zverev, he played well: he did not let the occasion and the crowd get to him – everyone apart from his team was supporting Nadal – and he stuck to his game plan from start to finish.

Zverev was also very gracious at the end. When asked about his win, he looked closer to tears than Nadal and thanked the great champion “from all of the tennis world”. It was, he said, a great honour to play him but “this is not my moment; it’s Rafa’s moment. Let him speak.” On the second day of the French Open, Zverev did exceedingly well on the court and off it.

As for Nadal, he was both encouraged by what he had done and, at the same time, disappointed…

“I went on court with the strange feeling that I’m going to be playing first round in Roland-Garros and I will not be favourite, and that’s the true,” he said.

“But I went on court with the idea to fight for the match, to put the level, the energy there, and just hope that the opponent don’t play at his best, because always first round is tough. I played for moments at, I think, a very good level but in other moments I missed.

“But that’s something that is 100 per cent normal when you are not playing tournaments in a row, when you are not playing these kind of matches since almost two years. It’s normal that your level is not [consistently high] because in the end you need to practice this, and the only way to practice this is competing.”

His final thoughts were that “I was not that far; that’s my feeling” and that was better than he could have hoped for a couple of weeks ago. He is making no promises about the future but “the dynamic is positive the last few weeks”.

The plan is to let the dust settle on his French Open, clear his head and then see where he is. The only part of his future plans coming into immediate focus is Wimbledon – and that is highly unlikely to be on his agenda. With the progress he has made on clay, the idea of switching to grass and then back to clay for the Olympics does not sound wise. “I feel that’s not a good idea, but I can’t confirm,” he said.

But coming back here next year? That is still up in the air.

“At the end, it’s about not having the feeling in one year or one year and a half that I didn’t give myself a chance, a real chance,” he said, “if immediately that I started to become a little bit more healthier, I stop. That’s why I am not saying I am retiring today. Give me two months till Olympics, and then let’s see if I am able to keep going or I say, okay, guys, it’s more than enough. Let’s see.”

Which brings us back to the Rolling Stones (and they are still going even if some of them are in their 80s):

“Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know, oh no, oh no.”