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French Open: Rafael Nadal loses in straight sets 6-4, 7-6, 6-3 to Alexander Zverev in first round

PARIS, FRANCE – MAY 27: Rafael Nadal of Spain stretches for a backhand against Alexander Zverev of Germany in a first round match at the 2024 French Open. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

The last time Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev faced off at the French Open, the match ended with Zverev being helped off the court after suffering a serious ankle injury. Now two years later the result was very different.

Nadal fell in straight sets – 6-4, 7-6, 6-3 – in a grueling three-hour match that the 14-time French Open winner said would likely be his last match at Roland Garros. He finishes with a record of 112 wins and four losses

He was still Rafa, but muted. A little slower than we remember. Slightly heavier in the feet. The shots that used to fall so artfully on the line were now several centimeters wide.

It wasn’t until the fifth game of the first set that Nadal really started to look like himself. He finally started hitting the ball with authority, attacking instead of constantly reacting, and using the entire court to challenge Zverev.

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But it just wasn’t enough. Nadal has 112 wins at Roland Garros, but we may have reached the point where that experience is a burden and no longer an asset. He has a decade head start on the 27-year-old Zverev and a long history of foot, hip and abdominal injuries. He has already dealt with hip and abdominal problems this season, which is one of the reasons why Nadal looked cautious on Monday.

There were flashes of the real Rafa. He could still hit the ball into impossible angles and create shots that no man could hope to return. Those moments were rare, but they were there.

And those moments provided a foundation for Nadal to rise in the second set. Trailing 2-1, he caught fire, finally pulling out his cross-court backhand to win five points in a row for the first time in the match. He won the match and leveled the set at 2-2, jumping for joy as the capacity crowd at Philippe Chatrier gave a deafening response. The crowd was even louder when he won his second straight match and broke Zverev for the first time.

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Nadal fought back in the third set, thrilling the crowd on Court Philippe-Chatrier. But Zverev’s constant pressure wore Nadal down and he eventually succumbed.

As an adoring crowd cheered Nadal on admiringly, Zverev was gracious in his post-match speech, ceding the moment to his famous opponent.

“First of all, thank you Rafa, on behalf of the entire tennis world,” he said. “It’s such a great honor. I watched Rafa play throughout my childhood and was lucky enough to play against him when I turned pro. Today is not my moment, it’s Rafa’s moment. Thank you.”

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