Rafael Nadal, king of the clay court, leaves French Open for perhaps the last time

The king of Roland Garros exits the French Open for what could be the final time.

(Jean-Francois Badias | AP) Spain's Rafael Nadal waves as he leaves the court after losing against Germany's Alexander Zverev during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Monday, May 27, 2024.

Paris, France • There will be no magical run, no age- and injury-defying push into the deep end of the competition.

Rafael Nadal, who ruled the red clay of Roland Garros as no one ever imagined someone could, exited the French Open for what is likely his final time early Monday evening, showered with an outpouring of love and admiration he earned during a nearly two-decade reign, over a tournament that became as much a part of his identity as anything in sport has for any athlete.

The end officially arrived at 6:28, with a final miss off the Spaniard’s racket, forced by Alexander Zverev, who prevailed 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.

In reality it was over far earlier than that, during the first shots of the match when it became clear that, despite all the talk of magic and possibility, this version of Nadal, though still capable of flashes of his old self, was something far different than the one who won 112 of 115 matches and 14 championships here.

More than 15,000 fans packed into every nook of Court Philippe-Chatrier. A clump of two-dozen that is used to getting choice seats clogged the entryway to the president’s box. In the upper reaches of the stadium, they crouched on stairways. In the fancy areas, the luxury suites and club rooms, the bartenders had little to do, their customers too focused on the thing everyone wanted from this day — the last glimpses of Nadal bull-whipping his forehands, short-hopping volleys off the dirt, and skipping his way into those roof-raising windmill fist-pumps in the court where he had more occasion to do them than anywhere else.

For more than an hour there wasn’t much of any of that, then suddenly there was plenty, a glorious burst of vintage Nadal running around his backhand to blast a forehand and push Zverev deep, perfectly set up for the soft drop shot into the open court. There was an ace down the throat of the court. And here he was, serving at 5-4 to draw even at a set apiece, ready to send the message that he was prepared to “die on the court,” as he always put it.

On Saturday, Nadal had spoken about his biggest concern facing Zverev, the world No. 4 and the the most fit and in-form player at the top of the sport in the first round. He’d been playing well in practice, moving with a freedom he hadn’t felt in months, and feeling at moments like he had the level of the best players in the world.

Practice sets, though, are one thing. Making the right decisions and executing the shots under the pressure of a Grand Slam with the eyes of the world watching, knowing the consequences of the slightest misses — that’s something that only comes with the kinds of matches Nadal has not played in nearly two years.

Ultimately, that is what doomed him on chilly and dreary afternoon and evening under the roof on Chatrier. In the moments when he’d nearly always found his best tennis and made the right decisions and the most courageous of shots — when he served to draw even then battled into a do-or-die tiebreaker — they weren’t there.

He hit serves that became easy chances for Zverev to go on the defensive, and groundstrokes into the middle of the court that Zverev pounded for winners. The big German needed just four points to square up the set at 5-5, then rode his killer serve and jumped on two ill-advised drop shots from Nadal to take a two-set lead and turn the end into a matter of time and details.

When Zverev rocketed a backhand service return past a charging Nadal to get the crucial break of serve in the third set, a stadium that had throbbed only minutes before as the Spaniard fought to extend his French Open life just a little longer, fell nearly silent.

The end of something, not a life, but something that felt like a vital part of so many people’s lives for so long, was coming.

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.