Nadal to play Zverev at farewell French Open as Swiatek, Osaka eye clash – Sport

PARIS: Rafa Nadal was handed a tough start to what is expected to be his farewell to the French Open as the record 14-times champion was drawn against fourth seed Alexander Zverev in the first round while women’s champion Iga Swiatek and fellow four-time major winner Naomi Osaka are on a second-round collision course.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic will begin his quest for a 25th Grand Slam crown against local hope Pierre-Hugues Herbert in his opener.

Unseeded Nadal, who missed his favourite Grand Slam tournament due to injury last year, has plummeted down the rankings during an extended spell on the sidelines and has said he expects to retire after this season.

The pairing drew an audible gasp in the room and the two will meet for the first time since their 2022 semi-final clash at Roland Garros which Nadal won after Zverev suffered an injury and retired.

“It’s coming a little early in the tournament surely,” former world number one and tournament director Amelie Mauresmo said about the Nadal-Zverev pairing. “This is good news for neither of them.”

Nadal, the winner of 22 Grand Slam titles, will turn 38 next week and this season will be his last on tour.

He holds a 7-3 winning head-to-head record against Germany’s Zverev with five of those victories coming on clay.

Zverev, 27, arrives in Paris on the back of lifting the Rome Open title last weekend.

As well as 14 titles in Paris, Nadal can boast a record of 112 wins and just three losses, two of which came against Djokovic who will be chasing a fourth French Open title.

“I imagine that looking at the draw, Nadal is not going to be delighted,” said Mauresmo. “Zverev is in very good shape, obviously it looks very complicated. But Nadal is a warrior, an extraordinary competitor. It’s Rafa so anything is possible.”

Should Nadal win the match, he could face 2021 US Open winner Daniil Medvedev in the quarter finals.

There were cheers from the audience when Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka was drawn against fellow three-time Grand Slam winner, Briton Andy Murray.

“It’s a superb matchup,” Mauresmo, who used to coach Murray, said about the match with Wawrinka.

The 37-year-old Murray, the 2016 runner-up, is also competing at the tournament for the final time.

He and Wawrinka, 39, have met 22 times in a two-decade rivalry with Murray boasting a 13-9 edge.

Three of those clashes have come at Roland Garros with Murray winning in the semi-finals in 2016 while the Swiss came out on top in the last-four in 2017 and first round in 2020.

Djokovic has struggled in the first half of 2024 and is yet to win a title this year. The Serbian was knocked out of the Italian Open in the third round this month after suffering a freak head injury.

The world number one turned 37 on Wednesday and marked the occasion by winning the 1,100th match of his career in Geneva.

Following Thursday’s draw, Djokovic is seeded to face Zverev in the semi-finals.

World number two Jannik Sinner, who took Djokovic’s Australian Open title in January, faces Christopher Eubanks of the United States.

Third-seeded Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz, a semi-finalist in Paris in 2023, plays a qualifier.

Sinner and Alcaraz are seeded to meet in the semi-finals but both men have been suffering from injuries which forced them to skip the Rome event.

In the women’s draw, defending champion and world number one Swiatek is in a hot streak of form after winning both the Madrid Open and Italian Open, and is favourite to claim her fourth title at Roland Garros.

However, the Pole could face a number of tough opponents in her quarter-final, including four-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, Miami Open winner Danielle Collins and Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova.

“This season has been has been really great already for me,” Swiatek said at the draw ceremony. “I know that I can adjust to any kind of conditions even in a short amount of time.”

World number two Aryna Sabalenka meets Erika Andreeva while Elena Rybakina, who reached the semi-finals in Madrid but was forced to pull out of Rome due to illness, takes on Belgium’s Greet Minnen.

US Open champion Coco Gauff, who reached the final of the French Open in 2022, will play a qualifier in the first round and could face Ons Jabeur in a mouth-watering quarter-final clash.

First-round match-ups to keep an eye on include Australian Open runner-up Zheng Qinwen against popular French veteran Alize Cornet, who has said she will retire after the French Open, and two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova against 15th seed Elina Svitolina, a three-time Grand Slam semifinalist.

One expected withdrawal was announced Thursday: fifth-ranked Jessica Pegula, an American who has reached six major quarter-finals.

Mauresmo said Swiatek was the favourite in the women’s draw, while there was a lot of uncertainty in the men’s singles. “Everything is open,” she added.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2024

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