Does Rafael Nadal's French Open exit mark the end of an era?

Paris, France - From Australia, China, and the US, Rafael Nadal fans descended on a chilly and damp Roland Garros on Monday, hoping to inspire their tennis "superhero" to victory at the French Open.

Spain's Rafael Nadal waves to the crowd as he leaves the court after losing his first round match against Germany's Alexander Zverev at the 2024 French Open.
Spain's Rafael Nadal waves to the crowd as he leaves the court after losing his first round match against Germany's Alexander Zverev at the 2024 French Open.  © REUTERS

In the end, however, many were reduced to tears as the 14-time champion slumped to a straight-sets defeat to Alexander Zverev in the first round, likely signaling the end of the 38-year-old's Grand Slam adventure in Paris.

"Personally, I'm very sad, he's Rafa, a legend," Mateo Castro, a 41-year-old French fan, told AFP with tears in his eyes. "It's hard to see him go."

Michael Lundell, another Nadal fan who had traveled from Genoa to Paris to watch the match, was also in tears.

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"I was crying, because I don't think there has ever been another role model like him before in sports," said the 43-year-old.

"It was a great match, I saw Rafael Nadal with an exceptional level again," said Gregory Dubus, a 50-year-old French fan.

"I've been following Nadal since 2005, his first victory here at Roland Garros, and to see him here, maybe in his last match was exciting."

Like many fans at Roland Garros on Monday, there was a feeling that they were witnessing the end of an era.

"A player like Rafa, you never want him to retire, he's a humble player, with an exceptional attitude on the court and in life, nobody wants him to stop," added Dubus.

Is it the end of an era for Rafael Nadal?

Spain's Rafael Nadal in action during his first round match against Germany's Alexander Zverev at the 2024 French Open.
Spain's Rafael Nadal in action during his first round match against Germany's Alexander Zverev at the 2024 French Open.  © REUTERS

Before the start of the match, fans had hailed a player dubbed a "superhero."

"You always have to keep the faith in Rafa, he will win," Hazel, a 28-year-old fan who had flown in from China for a second straight year after being left disappointed when Nadal withdrew in 2023, told AFP.

"The most important thing is that he stays healthy," she said, as she proudly showed the banners she had made with the colors of Spain, Nadal's face, and the message "Welcome back my super hero."

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Before Wednesday, Nadal had only lost three times in 115 matches at the tournament since his title-winning debut as a 19-year-old in 2005.

He said at the weekend that there was a chance this may be his last French Open but insisted he was still keeping the door "100% open" on continuing his career.

"You see a lot of 'Thank you Rafa' shirts. He's a monument at this tournament," said 41-year-old Manolo, who traveled to Europe from the US to watch Nadal and then Real Madrid play in the Champions League final in London this Saturday.

He has seen Nadal win at Wimbledon and the US Open as well as Paris but admitted Monday's clash with world number four Zverev "would be very difficult."

"I hope he beats Zverev... Rafa is Rafa," he said.

"It's possibly the last time he plays here, so we're very happy to watch him," said Alsi, a 40-year-old fan living in Australia.

Cover photo: REUTERS

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