French Open Facing Nadal

Spain’s Rafael Nadal, right, and Germany’s Alexander Zverev pose before their semifinal at the 2022 French Open. The two will meet in the first round at Roland Garros on Monday. Michel Euler/Associated Press

A word of advice to those time-conscious viewers who tune into tennis major tournaments only in the second week, when the fourth round or quarterfinals begin: Adjust your schedules this year. The French Open, which begins Sunday in Paris, will make it worth your while.

There are treasures buried in these early rounds sure to stir even the casual fan.

Two of the seven major champions in the men’s draw will face each other when Andy Murray, 37, and Stan Wawrinka, 39, each with three majors to their name, meet in a first-round time machine of a match. And reigning Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner will drag his injured hip into Roland Garros to play last year’s Wimbledon darling, Chris Eubanks, in the first round.

In the women’s draw, a pair of four-time major champions could meet in the second round should both Iga Swiatek, the overwhelming favorite to win her fourth French Open title, and Naomi Osaka triumph in their opening matches.

And still none of that compares to what the draw plopped at Rafael Nadal’s feet.

What is expected to be the final French Open of the Spaniard’s career will begin Monday with a match against No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, the German who is one of a handful of good bets to win a wide-open tournament despite the fact that he will be playing while a domestic abuse hearing begins at the end of this month in Berlin. He is charged with assaulting a former girlfriend during an argument in 2020, denies the charges, and continues to play because there is no specific policy in tennis regarding punishment for domestic abuse charges. He said in a pretournament news conference Friday the trial is “not at all” on his mind because he believes in the German court system.


Zverev learned of his match with Nadal after a practice session Thursday when his brother told him.

“I actually thought he’s joking in the beginning,” Zverev said Friday.

No joke. Zverev will face the 37-year-old titan with a record 14 titles at Roland Garros and, oh yeah, a statue near the grounds’ entrance. Nadal has never lost in the first round there, but he has never faced a top-five seed so early.

The pair will meet on footing so unequal they might as well be standing on the slope of a mountain.

Nadal returns to Roland Garros having missed the tournament last year for the first time since 2005 because of a hip injury. After missing most of 2023 and playing in only four tournaments this year, his ranking has dipped to No. 276 and he is unseeded for the first time. In three clay-court events in April and May, he had two second-round exits and one fourth-round defeat. He has long said the 2024 season will be his last.

Zverev, meanwhile, is 28-9 in singles matches this year and won the Italian Open in Rome last week with his deft touch, snappy power and fluid mobility on full display. Despite his success, he is mentally preparing to play Nadal the 22-time Grand Slam champion, not Nadal the limping veteran. The Spaniard still has the strongest willpower in tennis no matter his physical state, and plenty of impending retirees have rattled off improbable runs at major tournaments with less.


“I expect him to be at his absolute best,” Zverev said.

If he is, Nadal will be one of the few big names in the men’s draw who could say that. He is far from the only top player whose health is in question, and as a result, the men’s field is truly open for the first time in 20 years. The women? Not so much. Top-seeded Swiatek leads a burgeoning big three in women’s tennis, alongside second-seeded and reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka and fourth-seeded Elena Rybakina. Together, the trio have won six of the past eight Grand Slam titles. Third-seeded Coco Gauff, a 2022 French Open finalist and reigning U.S. Open champion, lurks as a threat as well.

Swiatek will be difficult to topple. The defending champion arrives in Paris on a 12-match winning streak and is looking to become the first woman since Serena Williams in 2013 to win titles in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.

The men are in varying states of disarray.

Third-seeded Carlos Alcaraz is dealing with a right forearm issue that forced him to miss clay-court tournaments in Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Rome. Sinner, the No. 2 seed, pulled out of his quarterfinal match in Madrid after injuring his hip and skipped his home tournament, the Italian Open. Casper Ruud, the No. 7 seed and a French Open finalist in 2022 and 2023, has complained of a back issue of late. Top-seeded Novak Djokovic hasn’t played his best tennis all year, lost in the third round in Rome, and continued his search for answers by playing a lower-level tournament in Geneva before coming to Roland Garros.

And Zverev, of course, has the Nadal thing.

“I really wanted to play him here,” Zverev said. “I did not want to play him in the first round.”

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