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French Open: Rafael Nadal loses in straight sets to Alexander Zverev in first round

French Open: Rafael Nadal loses in straight sets to Alexander Zverev in first round

The last time Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev squared off at the French Open, it ended with Zverev being helped off the court after sustaining a serious ankle injury. Two years later, the result was very different.

Nadal fell in straight sets — 6-4, 7-6(7-5), 6-3 — in a grueling three-hour match that the 14-time French Open winner said would likely be his final match at Roland Garros. He finishes with a record of 112 wins and four losses.

Rafael Nadal waves to the crowd after losing his first-round match against Alexander Zverev in the French Open on Monday in Paris. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

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

It wasn't until the fifth game of the first set that the 37-year-old Nadal started to really look like himself. He finally began hitting the ball with authority, attacking instead of constantly reacting, and using the entire court to challenge Zverev.

But it just wasn't enough. We may have reached the point where Nadal's vast experience is a burden and no longer an advantage. He has 10 years on the 27-year-old Zverev, and a long history of foot, hip and abdominal injuries. He's already dealt with hip and abdominal issues this season, which is one of the reasons Nadal looked tentative on Monday.

Flashes of the real Rafa were there. He could still hit the ball into impossible corners and create shots that no human could hope to return. Those moments were infrequent, but they were there.

And those moments built a foundation for Nadal to stand on in the second set. Down 2-1, he caught fire, finally unearthing his cross-court backhand and winning five points in a row for the first time in the match. He won the game to even the set at 2-2, jumping with delight while the capacity crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier delivered a deafening response. The audience was even louder when he won his second straight game to break Zverev for the first time. Ultimately, he lost the set in a tiebreaker.

Nadal fought back in a tremendous third set, thrilling the spectators at as he crossed the court to catch Zverev's returns. But Zverev held and the constant pressure finally wore an exhausted Nadal down.

With an admiring crowd giving an adoring cheer for Nadal, Zverev was gracious in speaking after the match, ceding the moment to his renowned opponent.

"First of all, thank you, Rafa, from all of the tennis world," he said. "It's such a great honor. I've watched Rafa play all my childhood and was lucky enough to play him when I turned professional. Today is not my moment, it's Rafa's moment. Thank you."

Nadal then took the microphone to thank the fans, acknowledging that it could be his final visit to Roland Garros, though he hopes to return for the Paris Olympics.

"Bonjour a tous. I'd like to thank you all, it's an incredible opportunity," said Nadal, who missed last year's tournament with a hip injury. "It's difficult for me to talk. I don't know if it's going to be the last time in front of all of you. Honestly, I'm not sure.

"The amount of feelings I had on this amazing court throughout my career, with all the success I had winning here, I could never have dreamed of it," he added.

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