PARIS, May 28 — Rafael Nadal exited what could be his last French Open to an outpouring of love and support with a first-round defeat by Alexander Zverev, wishing to be back at Roland Garros for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“I hope to see you again, but I don’t know,” Nadal told an ecstatic crowd after his straight-sets loss yesterday.

“There’s a big percentage I will not be back here but I am not 100 per cent sure. I hope to be back on this court for the Olympics, that motivates me.”

It will the third time since his debut at Roland Garros in 2005, that Nadal, whose body has been martyred by 23 years of professional tennis and who left the tournament with a crushed foot after his record-improving 14th title two years ago, does not get to celebrate his June 3 birthday in Paris.

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The French, who tend to arrive on court Philippe Chatrier fashionably late on the back of a long lunch, skipped coffee and digestif to fill the arena before the king, racket in hand as usual, stepped onto the court to deafening roars.

Spain’s Nadal stuck to his routine, avoiding the lines and crossing them with his right foot, sprinting to the baseline during warm-up and positioning his two bottles diagonally aimed at the court.

On a rainy day in Paris, organisers closed the roof, adding to the intimacy of the moment.

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On a court he knows like no one else, Nadal struggled to find his mark early on, netting a routine drop shot and serving a double fault to give Zverev the opening game.

The German, who after winning the Rome Masters was the worst possible draw for Nadal, kept his foot on the gas pedal to take the first set even if the Mallorcan showed glimpses of his best with a couple of spinning forehand winners down the line.

As soon as Zverev eased the pressure, however, Nadal converted his first break point to take a 3-2 lead in the second set.

“Rafa! Rafa!” went the crowd, again, as world number ones Iga Swiatek and Novak Djokovic, as well as fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, joined the party.

Nadal served for the set but Zverev levelled and forced a tiebreak, which he comfortably won.

There was another break for Nadal in the third set, and some ‘I-can-still-do-it’ fist pumps after a few jaw-dropping winners, but two years after Zverev left their semi-final match on a wheelchair with a broken foot, the German was too good this time.

There was a sense of anticipation on the morning of the Nadal v Zverev clash as Swiatek, gunning for a fourth title here, kicked off her campaign with a 6-1 6-2 demolition of French qualifier Leolia Jeanjean.

Swiatek has now won her last 15 matches in Paris following her back-to-back wins in 2022 and 2023.

Coco Gauff also made a strong start, dispatching German Julia Avdeeva 6-1 6-1 for her 50th Grand Slam match victory.

The 20-year-old American, who won the US Open last year to break her Grand Slam duck, is looking to claim her first French Open title after losing the 2022 final in Paris.

Sixth seed Maria Sakkari crashed out of the first round as Russian-born Varvara Gracheva, who now represents France, came back from a set down to secure a 3-6 6-4 6-3 victory.

In the men’s draw, Russian fifth seed Daniil Medvedev, who suffered a shock first-round exit at last year’s French Open, ensured a longer stay at Roland Garros this time around with a 6-3 6-4 5-7 6-3 win over Germany’s Dominik Koepfer.

Medvedev had leaned on his serve and a slew of shots to comfortably grab the first two sets before a determined Koepfer suddenly stepped up his game.

Koepfer came back from a early break down in the third set where Medvedev’s bid to force a tiebreaker was thwarted when the German broke serve to grab the set.

Koepfer then double-faulted to gift the Russian a break to open the fourth set but got back on serve at 3-3 only for Medvedev to close out the day’s final match on Court Simonne-Mathieu by winning the next three games.

In other men’s action, Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner, seeded second, downed American Chris Eubanks in straight sets, just like former runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas did with Hungarian journeyman Marton Fucsovics. — Reuters