The Capri shorts have grown shorter, the hair has thinned, the tops have grown sleeves and the pre-point routines have been curtailed over the years. Through it all, Rafael Nadal’s mastery over the clay courts in Paris never diminished.

The Spaniard won a record 14 titles at Roland Garros, a domination hitherto unheard of in tennis, and quite possibly, one that may never be repeated again. On clay, Nadal has won a record 63 titles including a record 26 Masters 1000 titles. Nadal’s 479-49 win-loss record on the surface is the best in the Open era.

It is only fair to wonder if Nadal was indeed moulded from the red clay he came to work his magic on for a better part of this century.

On Monday, however, the tennis world likely witnessed an emotional end to a two decade-long love story between Nadal and the French Open as the Spaniard, struggling with injuries and the ravages of time, bowed out in the first round of the 2024 edition with a straight sets loss to Alexander Zverev.

It is a testament to Nadal’s sheer domination at the French Open that Zverev, who won, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-3, became only the third man after Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic to beat Nadal at the tournament.

If it was indeed Nadal’s swansong at the tournament, he departs having won 112 of the 116 matches he played in Paris – a staggering 96.55 win percentage. No other player in the Open era comes close to matching the 37-year-old Spaniard’s record at Roland Garros at any other tournament.

Perhaps, no other sport has had a player or a team’s domination over a single tournament quite like what Nadal has had over the French Open.

To illustrate how bonkers Nadal’s reign in Paris has been, only Djokovic and Roger Federer have won more men’s Grand Slams – 24 and 20 respectively – than Nadal’s 14 French Open titles. Overall, Nadal has 22 men’s singles Majors.

The top three longest winning streaks at the French Open all belong to Nadal (39, 35 and 31 matches). Only Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon (41), and Federer at Wimbledon (40) and the US Open (40) have had longer winning streaks at a Grand Slam in the Open era than Nadal.

Ultimately, it is the body that had slid across the clay courts of Paris for the last 20 years, that has finally worn down. Recurring injuries have tested Nadal’s mettle over the past two years even as he retained the never-back-down mentality that propelled him to greatness.

Injuries saw Nadal miss almost the entire of the 2023 season, as he was forced to miss a first French Open since his 2005 debut. After announcing his withdrawal from the tournament last year, Nadal also stated that the 2024 season was likely going to be his final season on the tour.

In the run-up to the French Open however, Nadal did not close the door to playing beyond 2024.

“It's a big, big chance that this is going to be my last Roland Garros, but if I have to tell you it’s 100% my last Roland Garros, sorry, but I will not, because I cannot predict what’s going on,” he said before the tournament.

“In some ways I don’t want to close the door 100%. I am enjoying playing tennis. I am travelling with the family. They are enjoying. So give me some time. Maybe in one month and a half I say, ‘okay, it’s enough, I can’t keep going,’ but today in some way I cannot guarantee that that’s going to be the last one. But of course it’s a big chance.”

Even in what may have been his final moments in the French Open, as a player, Nadal refused to call it quits. Just like the way he played.

Despite what many tennis romantics would have hoped, there was no miraculous win over Zverev for Nadal. And yet, you could see why Nadal wasn’t fully committed to calling time on his career.

There were glimpses of the Nadal who made the clay courts of Paris his own. He was imperious at the net and even though the forehands had lost their zip, there were times they still troubled Zverev – a player ranked No 4 in the world.

Ever the fighter, it was a sentiment he repeated on Monday after his loss.

Speaking about Nadal’s possible farewell at the French Open, Federer hoped his eternal rival would not bid adieu from the couch but rather on the court.

“If he says ‘ciao’, he will do it on a court and not on his couch, and I love that because he is very far from being 100%,” Federer said.

Nadal will be back on the courts of Roland Garros later this year when he competes at the 2024 Olympic Games.

If not to win an improbable gold medal, then perhaps to simply give fans, on the fabled Parisian clay, one last opportunity to say, “Merci, Maestro.”