Tennis: 14-time champion Rafa Nadal exits French Open with first-round defeat, bids tentative farewell to Roland Garros

Rafael Nadal has 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.

"There's a big percentage I will not be back here, but I am not 100 percent sure. I hope to be back on this court for the Olympics, that motivates me."

For the third time since his debut at Roland Garros in 2005, 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 at Paris.

Rafa Nadal exits the French Open.
Rafa Nadal exits the French Open. Photo credit: Getty Images

The French, who tend to arrive on court Philippe Chatrier fashionably late after 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 at Paris, organisers closed the roof, adding to the intimacy of the moment.

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

After winning the Rome Masters, the German was the worst possible draw for Nadal, keeping 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, Nadal converted his first breakpoint to take a 3-2 lead in the second set.

"Rafa! Rafa!" went the crowd again, as world No.1s 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.

Nadal had another break 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.

Victory meant Zverev became only the third man to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, after Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling.

"I don't know what to say... thank you Rafa from all of the tennis world, it's such a great honour," he said. "I've watched Rafa play all my childhood and I was lucky enough to play him twice on this beautiful court."

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 at Paris, after 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 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.

In the men's draw, Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner, seeded second, barely broke sweat, as he downed American Chris Eubanks in straight sets, just like former runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas did with Hungarian journeyman Marton Fucsovics.