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Preview: Alexander Zverev vs. Rafael Nadal - prediction, form, head-to-head

Sports Mole previews Monday's French Open first-round match between Alexander Zverev and Rafael Nadal, including predictions, form and their head-to-head record.

Roland-Garros' favourite son commences what is expected to be an emotional French Open last dance on Monday, as 14-time champion Rafael Nadal meets Alexander Zverev in a blockbuster first-round tie.

While the revered Spaniard is engaging on his farewell tour, Zverev is now hitting the heights that he threatened to hit before his devastating injury in his most recent encounter with Nadal.

Match preview

Alexander Zverev reacts at the Italian Open on May 17, 2024© Reuters

Very rarely is Zverev not the headline act on the court these days - whether it be for his undeniable talent with the racquet in his hand or controversies outside of the arena - but the German will be under no illusions that the Roland-Garros crowd will be rooting against him on Monday.

Zverev arrives on the French clay amid the backdrop of his trial for alleged domestic abuse - which starts on May 31 and runs until mid-July - but the 27-year-old vehemently denies the accusations and does not have to appear in person, meaning that his French Open participation remains unaffected.

Close but no cigar has been Zverev's French Open story for the past three years, having reached the semi-finals in 2021, 2022 and 2023 without ever advancing to the championship match, while his Australian Open run back in January also ended at the semi-final stage to Daniil Medvedev.

However, the 2020 US Open runner-up may feel that he has no better shot at Grand Slam glory owing to high-profile injuries and other celebrated names losing their way, and his form in the lead-up to the second major of the year is certainly befitting that of a potential French Open champion.

Indeed, the fourth seed stormed to Italian Open glory earlier this month - his sixth Masters title overall and a first since the 2021 Cincinnati Open - and his record for the year reads a praiseworthy 28 wins and nine defeats before he attempts to bring the curtain down on Nadal's Roland-Garros adventure.

Rafael Nadal reacts at the Italian Open on May 9, 2024© Reuters

Remaining coy on his future with the press ahead of Monday's unmissable tie, Nadal refused to rule out the possibility of prolonging his French Open adventure until 2025 or later, but the upcoming edition is widely expected to be the Spaniard's swansong on his beloved Roland-Garros clay.

No man can boast as many as Nadal's unrivalled 14 French Open singles crowns during a streak of dominance lasting nearly 20 years, having conquered Roland-Garros on his very first foray in 2005 and sweeping aside countless foes ever since, but just seeing the 37-year-old in a major draw again brings about a hearty smile.

Most recently hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires aloft in 2022, Nadal has been absent from the last four Grand Slam events on account of his cruel injury problems, although he was scheduled to make his eagerly-anticipated major comeback at the 2024 Australian Open before a muscular issue reared its ugly head.

The 37-year-old, who turns 38 on June 3, has since been soaking up adulation in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome - reaching the last 16 in the Spanish capital and earning a notable scalp over Alex de Minaur along the way - but he was seen off with consummate ease by Hubert Hurkacz in the Italian Open second round.

Formerly as low as world number 664, Nadal - using a protected ranking to enter Roland-Garros 2024 - has since risen almost 400 places to 275th on the globe, and a second-round showdown against either David Goffin or Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard will be the prize should he avoid a fate he is yet to suffer at the French Open - a first-round exit.

Head To Head

French Open (2022) - Semi-finals: Nadal wins 7-6[8] 6-6 ret.
Italian Open (2021) - Quarter-finals: Nadal wins 6-3 6-4
Madrid Open (2021) - Quarter-finals: Zverev wins 6-4 6-4
Paris Masters (2020) - Semi-finals: Zverev wins 6-4 7-5
ATP Finals (2019) - Round robin: Zverev wins 6-2 6-4
Italian Open (2018) - Final: Nadal wins 6-1 1-6 6-3
Davis Cup (2018) - Round robin: Nadal wins 6-1 6-4 6-4
Monte-Carlo Masters (2017) - Last 16: Nadal wins 6-1 6-1
Australian Open (2017) - Third round: Nadal wins 4-6 6-3 6-7[5] 6-3 6-2
Indian Wells Masters (2016) - Fourth round: Nadal wins 6-7[8] 6-0 7-5

Zverev and Nadal's mouthwatering Monday matchup is a repeat of their 2022 French Open semi-final, where the 14-time champion was edging a tight contest before his German foe rolled his ankle and let out a blood-curdling cry of anguish; it was announced afterwards that he had sustained torn ligaments and required season-ending surgery.

Nadal's victory on retirement was his seventh success from 10 previous battles against Zverev, whom he also bested in straight sets in the 2021 Italian Open quarters, prior to which the reigning Rome champion had earned three triumphs on the bounce against his more experienced foe.

Before Nadal's body began to fail him, the 22-time major winner prevailed in each of his first five battles against Zverev, most notably a five-set Australian Open thriller in 2017 and a three-set Italian Open final in 2018, which remains their solitary meeting with a trophy on the line.

SM words green background

We say: Zverev to win in three sets

This was a particularly painful prediction to type out. While Nadal's unparalleled French Open achievements, unprecedented love for clay and unrivalled support from the Roland-Garros crowd all work in his favour, the form book is just too hard to ignore on this occasion.

The veteran Spaniard is also yet to be tested in a best-of-five battle in the 2024 season, but we cannot envisage him taking an in-form Zverev to the distance, and the German fourth seed should storm to the success that may close Nadal's French Open chapter for good.

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Rafael Nadal reacts at the Madrid Open on April 30, 2024
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