The 22-time Grand Slam champion, Rafael Nadal, showed glimpses of his former brilliance on Court Philippe Chatrier, energized by a fervent crowd, including his old rival Novak Djokovic. However, his formidable opponent, Alexander Zverev, proved too much for the aging Spaniard, whose career has been plagued by injuries in recent years.

Since undergoing hip surgery and suffering a muscle tear, Nadal had only played in four tournaments since January 2023. He entered the French Open ranked 276th in the world, following a straight-sets defeat in Rome by Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz.

Concerns of an early exit at Roland Garros seemed justified when Nadal lost his opening serve game to love. Yet, the Spaniard quickly rallied, displaying the grit and determination that have defined his extraordinary career.

As the players entered the court, the crowd erupted as the master of ceremonies recounted Nadal’s 14 French Open titles, starting with his first win in 2005 as a long-haired, sleeveless teenager. Over the years, his hair thinned and his outfits became more conventional, but “Rafa” remained the undisputed ‘King of Clay’ for nearly two decades.

The daunting task of potentially ending Nadal’s French Open career fell to Zverev, the 4th-seeded German who had previously left this same court in a wheelchair after twisting his ankle in their last semi-final encounter two years ago.

“Nobody wanted to play Rafa in the first round,” Zverev remarked before the match, noting that even top players like Djokovic, Alcaraz, and Sinner would have preferred to avoid the challenge.

Zverev arrived in Paris as a strong contender, having won the Rome Open earlier in the month. The 27-year-old, long considered a future Grand Slam champion, was in top form and capitalized on the opportunity against Nadal. He saved two break points at 3-1 in the first set and secured the opener after Nadal misfired a forehand into the net.

The second set was more competitive, with Nadal saving two break points to level at 2-2. He then broke Zverev for the first time, leading 3-2, but was broken to love when serving for the set. The tense tie-break saw Zverev emerge victorious, prevailing in a 19-shot rally.

In the third set, Nadal broke early but couldn’t maintain his lead. He saved four break points in a grueling 13-minute fifth game, but the physical toll was evident. Just days shy of his 38th birthday, Nadal ultimately succumbed, losing the match as he sent a weary forehand long and wide.

“The feelings today are difficult to describe with words but it’s special to feel the love in the place I love the most,” an emotional Nadal said post-match, as the crowd gave him a standing ovation, uncertain if they had witnessed his last match on his beloved clay court.

Nadal’s devoted fans flocked to Roland Garros, many sporting “Gracias Rafa” T-shirts and taking selfies at the “Rafa monument.” “Rafa is a model to us, an example of modesty, courage, and fighting spirit,” said 45-year-old Andrés from Alicante, Spain. “He is forever the greatest, whatever happens today.”

Though this was anticipated to be Nadal’s final French Open, the Spaniard has been vague about his future, unable to confirm if this was indeed his farewell to Roland Garros.

“Maybe the last one, maybe not,” he mused during a press conference. “I hope to be clear. I don’t want to create a big confusion, but I’m enjoying what I am doing.”

French Open organizers had prepared a tribute for Nadal, but the Spaniard opted not to endorse it. “We were ready to press the button on it,” said tournament director Amélie Mauresmo. “But it’s Rafa who manages his timing, we follow what he wants.”

After his earliest French Open exit in 18 appearances, Nadal remained noncommittal about his future. “I’m not 100% sure if it’s the last time but I enjoyed it, the crowd was amazing,” he said. “The body is feeling better than two months ago. Maybe in two months, I’ll say it’s enough. But it’s something I don’t feel yet.”