Nadal Accepting Of His Roland-Garros Draw, May Not Be Ready To Say Goodbye Monday

Rafael Nadal (photo: Brigitte Urban)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, May 26, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s been nineteen years since Rafael Nadal won his first Roland-Garros title in 2005, in his tournament debut. As he returns to Paris in 2024 following an injury absence last year, with 14 titles, 112 wins on the terre battue and a winning percentage of 97 percent, the Spaniard has become royalty around Stade Roland-Garros, the King of Clay.

Now, at age 37  — he turns 38 next month — and two years removed from his last title triumph on Court Philippe-Chatrier, Nadal enters this year’s French Open, his 19th, ranked outside the Top 250 at No. 276 – he used a protected ranking to directly enter the main draw – but he remains beloved by all, especially the French fans.

“This place is magical for me,” Nadal, winner of 22 majors, said Saturday during his pre-tournament news conference at Stade Roland-Garros.

On Thursday, when the men’s main draw was revealed, though, a collective gasp could be heard through the L’Orangerie. That’s because unprotected by ranking or his 14 Roland-Garros titles, Nadal was drawn to face World No. 4 and fourth seed Alexander Zverev in the first round. Some way to treat royalty, huh?

Nadal said he was playing a practice match when he heard about the draw. “It’s something I expected,” he admitted. “I’m not seeded. I have to accept it.”

While it’s generally been regarded that 2024 would be Nadal’s last hurrah at the French Open, now, after Nadal addressed the media, maybe the Spanish icon will be back in Roland-Garros next year.

“Is it my last time in Roland-Garros? It is very probable, but I can’t confirm that at 100 percent,” Nadal said. “I don’t want to close that door. …

“In my mind, I want to give myself to be competitive here. The answer will be on Monday.”

Nadal said the past few days of practice on Court Philippe-Chatrier has been the first time since he came back that he’s been able to run properly “and that’s encouraged me.

“I have at least a small chance to play well. … Physically, I feel better. I have less limitations than a few weeks ago.”

Nadal will enter his Monday match against Zverev 7-4 overall in 2024 and 5-3 on clay. He’s 7-3 lifetime against the German superstar. Two years after Zverev shattered his ankle in a Roland-Garros semifinal against Nadal, he’s fresh off winning the Rome title, while Nadal suffered a disappointing early-round loss against Hubert Hurkacz.

“Of course, on paper it is not the best draw,” said Nadal, long known for her ferocity. “I play against one of the toughest opponents possible, and at the same time, he came here winning the last event and it’s a Masters 1000. That’s the draw. Just try to be ready for it.

“You know, it’s a super-tough first round. Maybe I go [out and] repeat the disaster of Rome. It’s a possibility, of course. I don’t want to hide that.”

Whether self-deprecating or dead serious in his comments and demeanor, Nadal seems more confident in Paris than he was in Rome or earlier this month in Madrid.

“It’s a different tournament, a different feeling completely,” Nadal said. “But I progressed. In the practices, without a doubt I improved, especially in terms of movements. So I don’t feel the limitations that I felt in Rome in terms of running, both sides, so that’s a lot for me. …

“I’m feeling competitive at practice. I can play against anyone. Let’s see if I can do it in professional matches now.”

Zverev looks forward to the challenge of playing Nadal

While a lot has been said and written about Monday’s upcoming blockbuster first-round clash between 14-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev, much of it has been from the Spaniard’s point of view.  But what about Zverev, currently ranked World No. 4 with a 28-9 win-loss record and riding high after winning the Rome Masters last weekend?

“To be very honest, I wanted to play Rafa again in my career, because I didn’t want my last memory of me playing against Rafa to be me leaving the court on a wheelchair,” Zverev said Friday during his pre-tournament news conference. “Ideally, I would have liked to play him in the later stage of the tournament, but it is how it is now. He is unseeded this year. I am seeded. You know, it’s a tough draw, but it’s a tough draw for both of us. We’ll see how it goes on Monday.

“He has been out injured. He hasn’t played a lot of tennis. His ranking is where it is. … Everybody now is excited for a tough battle and tough first round. I think he’s excited and I’m excited for it,” Zverev added.

“You’re not playing the statue, you’re playing the actual person. But you are playing Rafael Nadal. For me, in my mind, I’m going to play peak Rafa Nadal. That’s what I expect him to be. I expect him to be at his absolute best. I expect him to play the best tennis he’s played in a long time on this court.

“There’s always been discussion. I mean, 2022 I remember he came into Roland-Garros winning Monte-Carlo, not winning Madrid, not winning Rome. He came into this tournament, everybody was like, ‘Oh, he’s a big question mark, he’s this and that’. He came and dominated the entire tournament.”

Zverev has been as consistent as anyone at Roland-Garros in recent years. He’s been a semifinalist three straight years and made the second week in each of the last six French Opens.

Alcaraz better, hitting harder, ready for Sunday opener

While World No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain has played just four matches during the European spring clay-court season, he declared during his pre-tournament news conference on Friday that he’s feeling better, hitting harder and ready to play.

The newly-turned 21-year-old Spaniard will take to Court Philippe-Chatrier in the first men’s singles match of the Paris fortnight Sunday afternoon against 107th-ranked American lucky loser J.J. Wolf. He doesn’t believe his lack of clay-court seasoning this year will be a hindrance.

“Everyone is different, as a player and as a person,” Alcaraz said. “Some people need loads of matches, lots of tournaments, and others don’t need so many. I’d say I’m someone who doesn’t need to practice every day to find my rhythm. 

“Maybe I can miss some practice sessions, as many of you will have seen at Grand Slams. There are rest days when I don’t play, and that doesn’t set me back. I’m a player who doesn’t need so many matches to find my form.”

Asked who is the favorite to win this year’s tournament, Alcaraz said he doesn’t have a clear favorite. “That’s the great thing about tennis right now; there is a wide range of players who can win the best tournaments, who can win Grand Slams,” he said.

“In the end, you watch matches and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that’s great. Rafa is always there. Zverev is always there, although he’s playing Nadal in the first round. Sinner too, even though he has an injury, I still think he’s capable of doing it. And, of course, Djokovic. I don’t have a clear favorite to win the tournament, there’s a wide range of players who are able to do it.”

Sunday’s Roland-Garros order of play

By the numbers

There are 40 matches on Sunday’s order of play – 20 men’s first-round singles and 20 women’s first-round singles – spread across three show courts and seven outer courts. Play begins on Court Philippe-Chatrier at noon (Paris Time) with Naomi Osaka of Japan facing Lucia Bronzetti of Italy, and at 11 a.m. (Paris Time) on all other courts.

French No. 1 Ugo Humbert opens play on Court Suzanne-Lenglen against Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego and two former French Open women’s champions, Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia (2017) and Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic (2021), are part of the action on Day One, too.

“Quotable …”

“I hope to be clear. I don’t want to create a big confusion, but I’m enjoying what I am doing. Sorry, but I am feeling competitive in the practices. 

“Probably not yet in the professional matches. But yeah, in the practices, I can tell you, I am able to play almost against anyone. And I don’t feel much worse than the others, so that gives me some hope.” 

Rafael Nadal of Spain, during his pre-tournament news conference Saturday, on why this might not be his last Roland-Garros.