King Of Clay Nadal Leaves It All On The Court In Roland-Garros Loss To Zverev

Rafael Nadal (photo: Roland-Garros video)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, May 27, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

While Rafael Nadal found moments that brought back memories of his 14 Roland-Garros titles and earned him the monicker “King of Clay” – especially his trademark whip-like forehand passing shot winners that brought the fans who filled Court Philippe-Chatrier to the brim on a rainy Monday afternoon in Paris to their feet – in the end, it wasn’t enough.

At the conclusion of their three-hour, five-minute match, it was World No. 4 Alexander Zverev of Germany celebrating a first-round victory — albeit in a respectful manner — over the 37-year-old Spanish icon and winner of 22 major crowns, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

Zverev, 27, combined a winning formula that included a solid serve to go along with his relentless groundstrokes and, importantly, he maintained a calm and cool demeanor. Looking back, Zverev hit eight aces, won 72 percent of his first-serve points, struck 44 winners and converted six of 18 break points. Nadal mustered only a 57-percent efficiency rate of winning points on his first serve, hit 34 winners to 30 unforced errors, and was able to only convert two of 11 break-point chances. Zverev outpointed Nadal 112-92.

After the match, both Zverev and Nadal addressed the capacity crowd, which included men’s and women’s No. 1s Novak Djokovic and Iga Swiatek, as well as Carlos Alcaraz, Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet.

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you, Rafa, from all of the tennis world,” Zverev said. “I’ve watched Rafa play from my childhood. I was lucky enough to play him two times on this beautiful court. Today is not my moment, it’s Rafa’s moment, so I’m not going to speak much.”

When it was Nadal’s turn to address the crowd, there was plenty of attention given to what he had to say — and lots of love and affection shown the future Hall of Famer, too.

“It’s difficult for me to talk. I don’t know if it’s going to be the last time that I’m going to be here in front of all of you, honestly,” said Nadal, making his first appearance at Roland-Garros since winning the 2022 title.

“I am not 100 percent sure, but if it’s the last time, I enjoyed it. The crowd has been amazing during the whole week of preparation and the feelings that I have today are difficult to describe in words. But for me it’s so special to feel the love of the people the way that I felt in the place that I love the most.”

Sinner is tested in triumph over Eubanks, hip is good

World No. 2 Jannik Sinner won his first competitive match in three weeks with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory over 46th-ranked American Christopher Eubanks in two hours and nine minutes on Court Suzanne-Lenglen with the roof closed.

The second-seeded Italian, who withdrew prior to his quarterfinal match in Madrid and skipped the Rome Masters to allow his right hip to heal, moved without pain and struck the ball with much clarity against Eubanks. He hit 30 winners while his opponent committed 42 unforced errors. Sinner, who saved nine of 10 break points, outpointed Eubanks 104-78.

“Honestly, I’m just happy to be back on court,” Sinner said in his on-court interview. “I was injured, so I’m very happy to be back here. It’s a very special tournament for me. It’s where I reached the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam for the first time, so I have some great memories. The last years I didn’t play my best, so I’m just trying to go day by day, building every day, and I’m just happy about today’s performance.”

Later, in his post-match news conference, Sinner added: “I said if I played a first-round match, I only play if the hip is 100 percent. The hip seems good. I’m very happy about that. The general shape … is not where I want to be, but, you know, it takes time. 

“I had a long period without practice also. So, you know, it’s all normal. In my mind I know I will struggle, but in the other way, I’m happy to be here. Today was a good day for me.”

Next, Sinner will face 124th-ranked French wild card Richard Gasquet in the second round.

Swiatek wins 15th straight at Roland-Garros, Osaka next

World No. 1 and three-time French Open champion Iga Swiatek needed just 61 minutes to put away an easy 6-1, 6-2 win over 148th-ranked French qualifier Leolia Jeanjean inside Court Philippe-Chatrier to set up a second-round showdown with four-time major champion Naomi Osaka of Japan.

The Polish superstar, who became the first woman to win 15 consecutive matches at Roland-Garros since Justine Henin won 24 consecutive matches between 2005-10, ran her current 2024 winning streak to 13 against Jeanjean. She hit 26 winners to 18 unforced errors and broke her opponent’s serve five times. Swiatek outpointed Jeanjean 54-29 en route to improving to 29-2 lifetime in Paris.

When court side interviewer Marion Bartoli hailed her as the “Queen of Clay” during an on-court interview, Swiatek tried to play down the new nickname.

“I think it’s too early. I’m really proud of my achievements, it’s always been my favorite surface for me, it gives me the most pleasure,” Swiatek said.

“For sure, I’ll be watching Rafa’s match, but being compared to him, I’m not at that level yet, I still have many things to improve. 

“He’s a great person, he’s a great athlete, he’s shown that for many, many years and I’m just at the beginning. I’ll do my best to take some lessons from him to be a good person and a good player.”

Jabeur wins, aiming for deep run

No. 8 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia kicked off the day on Court Philippe-Chatrier with a 6-3, 6-2 defeat of American wild card Sachia Vickery in an hour and 21 minutes with the roof closed.

The three-time major finalist has lost nine of 15 matches this season while dealing with a nagging knee injury. However, against the 124th-ranked Vickery, Jabeur showed signs of her former self, mixing 22 drop shots into her repertoire effectively. She hit 30 winners overall and outpointed Vickery 77-58.

“I aim for a deep run,” Jabeur said afterward. “I did a wonderful preparation. I practiced a lot, and I never dropped a set during practice sessions. I hope that I will see that again on the major courts, such as Philippe Chatrier, and I hope to get the upper hand every time. But I will see it point after point, ball after ball, game after game, and we’ll see.”

Wawrinka, Murray shared their mutual respect

At the end of their 23rd meeting in Sunday evening’s featured match on Court Philippe-Chatrier, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray met at the net for a handshake and it extended into a lengthy embrace and chat.

Wawrinka, 39, from Switzerland, whose trademark one-fisted backhand guided him to the 2015 Roland-Garros title, beat the 37-year-old Briton Murray, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, in two hours and 19 minutes.

“I think I played my best match of the year. I think I was feeling good. I was moving well. I was playing aggressive,” Wawrinka said after the match. “I liked the conditions, and I’m super happy with the performance and the level. It’s really positive for me.”

He added: “It was emotional, for sure. We’re getting closer to the end, and we played so many times over the past 20 years. A lot of emotion. [It] was amazing to be on the Chatrier night session, something I never had a chance to do. And, yeah, he’s [an] amazing guy, amazing player, such a big fighter. We have a lot of respect for each other.”

As for Murray, in his news conference, he said: “Obviously disappointed. … He gave me very few opportunities. Physically, tennis is not easy for me nowadays. 

“My body isn’t what it was 10 years ago. I’m fully aware of that.”

Around Roland-Garros

No. 9 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece took control of his first-round match with Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics, ranked 54th, after a close first set on Court Suzanne-Lenglen and won going away, 7-6 (7), 6-4, 6-1, in two hour and 20 minutes.

No. 15 seed Ben Shelton of the United States endured two rain delays and outlasted No. 88 Hugo Gaston of France, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, in two hours and 29 minutes on Court 14, to earn his first career win at Roland-Garros.

No. 21 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, like Shelton, maintained patience during the rain delays and beat No. 70 Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, in two hours and 13 minutes on Court 6. It was Auger-Aliassime’s first Paris win since 2022.

Other men’s seeded winners include: No. 5 seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia, No. 14 Tommy Paul of the United States, No. 18 Karen Khachanov of Russia, No. 20 Sebastian Baez of Argentina, No. 23 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina, No. 25 Frances Tiafoe of the United States, No. 30 Lorenzo Musetti of Italy.

Among the upsets: No. 29 Arthur Fils of France, who lost to No. 35 Matteo Arnaldi of Italy, 6-3 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, and No. 32 Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, who fell to No. 56 Pavel Kotov of Russia, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2.

Among the women’s seeded winners were: No. 3 Coco Gauff of the United States, No. 5 Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, No. 11 Danielle Collins, No. 12 Jasmine Paolini of Italy, No. 15 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, No. 17 Ludmilla Samsonova of Russia, No. 20 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, No. 23 Anna Kalinskaya of Russia, No. 27 Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic, and No. 31 Leylah Fernandez of Canada.

Among the upsets: No. 6 Maria Sakkari of Greece, who lost to No. 88 Varvara Gracheva of France; No. 13 Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil, who fell to No. 51 Elisabetta Cocciaretto of Italy, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1; and No. 16 Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, who was defeated by Viktoriya Tomova of Bulgaria, 6-3, 7-6;(5).

Monday’s Roland-Garros results

Tuesday’s Roland-Garros order of play

By the numbers

Kei Nishikori of Japan is now 28-7 in five-set matches in his career following his 7-5, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 1-6, 7-5 victory over Canadian qualifier Gabriel Diallo Sunday. His 80 percent win-rate in five-set matches is first among active players.

“Quotable …”

“The hip is good. I’m very happy. I’m glad that my team and myself worked very hard to be on court as soon as possible. Obviously without my team, it is not possible. For sure, my general shape is not at 100 per cent yet, so we try to build every day.”

Jannik Sinner of Italy, during his on-court interview, after defeating Christopher Eubanks to advance to the second round.