Rafael Nadal’s illustrious French Open career appears to have reached its twilight on Monday, as the 14-time champion faced a disheartening first-round defeat against Alexander Zverev. Nadal, who will turn 38 on June 3, fell to the world number four with a scoreline of 6-3, 7-6 (7/5), 6-3. This defeat marked only his fourth loss in an astounding 116 matches at Roland Garros, dating back to his victorious debut in 2005.

This unprecedented first-round exit in Paris inevitably raises questions about Nadal’s future in professional tennis. Reflecting on the match, Nadal expressed uncertainty about his return to Roland Garros. “I don’t know if this is the last time I will be here, I am not 100% sure but if it is, then I wanted to enjoy it,” he remarked, his voice tinged with emotion. “The feelings today are difficult to describe in words.”

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Injuries have plagued Nadal, significantly limiting his participation in tournaments. Since January of the previous year, he has competed in only four events, causing his world ranking to plummet to 275. Consequently, Nadal entered the French Open unseeded. Despite these setbacks, he remained optimistic about his future in tennis, stating on the eve of the tournament that he was “100% keeping the door open” regarding his career, which has seen him win 22 Grand Slam titles.

The match against Zverev was particularly poignant as it mirrored their 2022 semi-final encounter, which Nadal won when Zverev was forced to retire due to an ankle injury. On this occasion, Nadal had his opportunities but was unable to capitalize. He managed to secure breaks in both the second and third sets, only to see Zverev claw back each time.

The atmosphere in Court Philippe Chatrier was electric, with enthusiastic chants of “Rafa, Rafa” echoing under the closed roof as torrential rain disrupted the tournament schedule. However, the mood shifted dramatically when Nadal was broken in his opening service game. He missed crucial break points in the fourth game, adding to his frustrations.

Despite saving two set points in the ninth game, Nadal ultimately lost the first set after 50 minutes, marking only the fourth time he had dropped an opening set at Roland Garros. In the second set, Nadal managed to break Zverev’s serve to lead 3-2, but the German quickly recovered, forcing a tense tie-breaker. Zverev edged out the tie-breaker, buoyed by a grueling 19-shot rally that pushed him ahead.

The third set saw Nadal dig deep, breaking and holding to lead 2-0, much to the delight of the crowd, which included notable figures like Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, and Iga Swiatek. However, Zverev once again showed his resilience, leveling the set at 2-2. Nadal’s struggle became evident during a marathon 13-minute fifth game where he saved four break points but eventually succumbed to Zverev’s relentless pressure.

As Zverev took control and moved to a 4-3 lead, it became clear that Nadal’s efforts were in vain. The match concluded when Nadal sent a forehand wide and long, sealing his fate.

This defeat not only shocked fans but also underscored the relentless nature of professional tennis. Nadal’s unparalleled career at Roland Garros has been a testament to his skill, determination, and love for the sport. Whether or not he returns to the clay courts of Paris remains uncertain, but his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game is firmly cemented. As the tennis world speculates on his future, Nadal’s journey serves as an inspiration, demonstrating that resilience and passion are the true hallmarks of a champion.