Zverev expects 'peak Nadal' in French Open duel as Djokovic slumps

'Peak Rafa': Rafael Nadal takes part in a practice session on Court Philippe Chatrier (Dimitar DILKOFF)
'Peak Rafa': Rafael Nadal takes part in a practice session on Court Philippe Chatrier (Dimitar DILKOFF)

Alexander Zverev expects to face "peak Rafael Nadal" in their mouth-watering French Open duel as he prepares to deliver a heart-breaking, final blow to the 14-time champion's storied Roland Garros career.

Zverev, the world number four from Germany, has been handed the first round draw that nobody wanted as 22-time Grand Slam title winner Nadal prepares to play the tournament for the final time.

"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," Zverev told reporters ahead of Monday's clash.

"I expect him to play the best tennis he's played in a long time on this court."

Nadal holds a 7-3 winning record over the in-form German, winning five of their six meetings on clay.

One of those came in Paris two years ago when Zverev was forced to retire from their semi-final after suffering an horrific ankle injury which kept him sidelined until January last year.

Zverev is still refinding his form after that injury and won his first Masters 1000 since 2021 last week at the Rome Open.

"He's going to finish his career probably before mine," said the 27-year-old Zverev of his Spanish rival who turns 38 on June 3.

"I really wanted to play him one more time because I didn't want my last memory to be me rolling off in a wheelchair off Court Philippe Chatrier. I really wanted to play him here."

- 'Tough battle' -

He added: "I didn't want to play him in the first round. I wanted to play him in the semi-finals, final, a later stage of the tournament. But at the end of the day, he's not seeded, it is how it is, and I think we're both prepared for a tough battle."

While Paris geared up for an emotional rollercoaster on Monday, 500km away in Geneva, world number one Novak Djokovic was enduring another setback.

Djokovic admitted he was "worried" about his French Open title defence after falling to 44th-ranked Czech Tomas Machac in the Geneva semi-finals, 6-4, 0-6, 6-1.

"Of course I'm worried. I haven't been playing good at all this year," said 37-year-old Djokovic ahead of Roland Garros where the 24-time Grand Slam champion has won three times.

"I've had some good matches here and there but it is what it is. You have to accept it. I don't consider myself a favourite there. I'm going to take it match by match and see how far I can go."

The Serb will head to Paris where he faces Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the first round on Tuesday having won no titles this year, his first such dry spell since 2018.

Djokovic, bidding to reach his first final of the season, received a medical timeout at the end of Friday's first set and revealed he had been suffering a stomach complaint.

- 'Terrible feeling' -

"It was a terrible feeling with stomach and health today -- it was not a great night and today as well," said Djokovic to atptour.com.

As the French Open prepared for Nadal's swansong, rivals were quick to hail the Spanish star who has lost just three times in 115 matches at Roland Garros since his title-winning debut in 2005.

"It's good to see that he can play again, that he's not injured," said former champion Stan Wawrinka, who hit with Nadal during the week on Court Philippe Chatrier.

"I really hope that he can come back in shape because if his body leaves him alone a little bit, he has plenty to do. He is still as strong as ever."

Nadal is unseeded after his ranking slumped to 276 in the world having played just four tournaments since January last year.

Fifth-ranked Daniil Medvedev, however, said he was still "happy" not to have been drawn against the former world number one.

"There's a lot of hard work, a lot of mental effort. Sometimes people forget he has a lot of talent in his hands also," said the Russian.

"We were warming up serves and then he did three in a row, volley, dropshots, banana ones, with backspin, and it was funny.

"We were saying, 'Yeah, no talent, just hard work!'"

dj/jc