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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Friday, May 24, 2024
Facing 14-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier is no laughing matter.

Still, when Alexander Zverev was informed he drew Nadal in the French Open first round, he thought it was a joke.

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During his practice session yesterday, Zverev learned the news of his blockbuster showdown vs. Nadal from older brother Mischa.

It was a major "you cannot be serious" moment for the two-time Rome champion.

"I was on court with Rublev yesterday on Chatrier practicing, and then after the practice was over, which was actually a great practice, my brother told me," Zverev told the media in Paris today. "I actually thought he's joking (smiling) in the beginning.

"But then, yeah, it is what it is. It is the way it is."

Empowered by his run to the Rome title on Sunday, Zverev sees his showdown with Nadal as full-circle major moment.

Two years ago, a horrific ankle injury abruptly ended a riveting Roland Garros semifinal with Zverev lying in agony on the red dirt as a mortified Nadal tried to provide support.

Beneath the closed roof of Court Philippe Chatrier, Nadal advanced to his 14th Roland Garros final after Zverev crashed to the court suffering a gruesome right ankle injury that forced him to retire with the Spaniard leading 7-6(8), 6-6.

Three hours, three minutes into a dizzying and dramatic match, Zverev was racing right chasing a running forehand when he rolled his right ankle bending it at a grotesque angle, crashed to the red clay and lay in the dirt wailing in piercing cries while writhing in agony.

The trainer immediately came out onto court to attend to the fallen German—Nadal came across the net to try to help too—before Zverev was helped to his feet and carted off the court in a wheelchair.

Embed from Getty Images

A philosophical Zverev said he always wanted to face Nadal again, though obviously squaring off against the greatest clay-court champion in history in the Roland Garros first round is not ideal. Nadal has won seven of 10 meetings vs. Zverev.

"I mean, obviously, to be very honest, I wanted to play Rafa again in my career, in his career, because I didn't want my last memory of me playing against Rafa to be me leaving the court on a wheelchair," Zverev said. "So ideally, I would have liked to play him in the later stage of the tournament, but it is how it is now.

"He is unseeded this year. I am seeded. You know, it's a tough draw, but it's a tough draw for both of us. We'll see how it goes on Monday."

No. 5 Daniil Medvedev practiced with Nadal at Roland Garros yesterday and reports the King of Clay not only beat him in a practice set, he played better than he did in Madrid or Rome.

"Well, honestly, [Nadal] played well," Medvedev told the media in Paris. "We didn't play five sets. He played well. Better than what I saw on TV from Rome or Madrid.

"I didn't feel I was bad. We played a set and more, and he beat me."

Medvedev, who lost a pair of gut-wrenching Grand Slam finals to Nadal at the 2019 US Open and 2022 Australian Open, predicts "Rafa can perfectly win" when he meets Zverev.

"It will be interesting for me to see how he plays against Zverev, because once again, Rafa will always be Rafa," Medvedev said. "He won here 14 times. Until he plays here, well, even if he may not be favorite, he can perfectly win. "I don't know. He may have lost three or four times. The match will be interesting."

Facing King of Clay Nadal on the red clay of Roland Garros has been called the most daunting assignment in sport.

The legendary left-hander not only owns an astounding 112-3 career record at Roland Garros, he's never lost back-to-back matches on his beloved dirt in his entire pro career.

Olympic gold-medal champion Zverev said he keeps reminding himself, he's playing a man not the mythic larger-than-life steel statue of Nadal that rises above the Roland Garros grounds.

Still, Zverev said he expects to confront the best version of Nadal he's seen when they face off in the French Open first round.

"You're not playing the statue, you're playing the actual person. But you are playing Rafa Nadal," Zverev said. "For me, in my mind, I'm going to play peak Rafa Nadal. That's what I expect him to be.

"I expect him to be at his absolute best. I expect him to play the best tennis he's played in a long time on this court. There's always been discussion.

"I mean, 2022 I remember he came into Roland Garros not winning Monte-Carlo, not winning Madrid, not winning Rome. He came into this tournament, everybody was like, oh, he's a big question mark, he's this and that. He came and dominated the entire tournament. So in my mind, I think he's going to be peak Rafa Nadal. I think he's going to be at his best, and that's my mindset going into this match."

Photo credit: Roland Garros