Rafael Nadal takes part in a practice session ahead of The French Open tennis tournament on Court Philippe-Chatrier. GETTY IMAGES

It's fitting that Rafa Nadal is making his big comeback on the same clay courts where he made his tennis legend and where he may soon say 'adieu' to the sport, either at the upcoming French Open or just a month and a half later at the Olympic Games.

Less fortunate is the announcement of his pairing against Aleksander Zverev for the first round of Roland Garros, which begins on Sunday. The German, currently ranked fourth in the world, is a powerful opponent and will test the 14-time champion to the test after a nightmarish season so far for the now 38-year-old superstar.

Nadal is currently ranked 276th in the world, largely due to injury as he has barely played in the last two years and is likely to make his last appearance at Roland Garros, and certainly at the Olympics, where he has also enjoyed success in the past and should face another uphill battle. The tennis great will be hoping to win another gold medal, if not alone, in the doubles with rising superstar Carlos Alcaraz, as he did at Rio 2016 with Marc López.

With 22 career Grand Slam titles to his name, second only to Novak Djokovic's 24, Nadal is a global icon despite recent criticism of sportswashing for his embrace of Saudi Arabian business ventures. One last taste of Olympic glory would certainly add some shine to his already impressive track record but otherwise lacklustre farewell tour, just two years after another tennis legend and longtime friend and rival, Swiss ace Roger Federer, hung up his racket.

Zverev now stands between Nadal, who enters the tournament unseeded despite having the most French Open trophies, and an extended run of elite tennis before Paris 2024. Even if he fails to win a 15th Roland Garros, getting past the German would be a boon, not least in terms of his preparation for what could be the last chance for fans in Paris to see him at his best.

Nadal holds a 7-3 winning head-to-head record against the 27-year-old German with five of those victories on clay. Zverev arrives in full form, having conquered the Rome Open last weekend, which the Spaniard exited in the second round. They both crossed paths at the 2022 Roland Garros semi-finals, when the Gernan needed to retire after a serious ankle injury. In June 2023, the Spaniard underwent arthroscopic surgery to his psoas muscle.

Nadal in a practice session on Court Philippe-Chatrier ahead of Roland Garros. GETTY IMAGES
Nadal in a practice session on Court Philippe-Chatrier ahead of Roland Garros. GETTY IMAGES

"I'm going to play the French Open thinking that I can give my all, 100 per cent," Nadal said this week. He missed the last French Open for the first time since 2004 because his body did not hold up, then played his first tournament in almost a year in January at the Brisbane International, where he reached the quarter-finals, and withdrew from the 2024 Australian Open due to hip pain.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that his great run in the tennis world ranks started out in 2001 and that he shone brightly in his first Olympics playing doubles, then claimed the men’s gold medal in singles in Beijing 2008, when he beat Chilean Fernando González in the final. He is also one of two men, along with American Andre Agassi, to win the Olympic gold medal as well as the four majors in singles in his career, a feat known as a Career Golden Slam.

His uncle and former coach, Toni Nadal, acknowledged in an interview back in February that the Roland Garros undisputed king once told him that competing at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing was the best experience he had ever had. He also expressed hope that his nephew “will bring back a medal” from Paris. “The Games, for anyone, even for those who have other tournaments like Wimbledon in tennis, due to a tradition and a desire of any athlete, are something special,” the 62-year-old said. “Rafael told me the Beijing Games were the best experience he had ever had, which he won thanks to the rest of the Spanish athletes and the atmosphere there.”

The former world No 1 had yet to confirm that he would play the French Open, but he was registered in the bracket and has been practicing in his favourite Philippe Chatrier clay court for the past week, much to the delight of many fans cheering him on.

"If I have to say what's my feeling and if my mind is closer one way or the other way, I going to say I'll be in Roland Garros and try my best," Nadal said on Monday. "Physically I have some issues, but not probably yet enough to say not playing in the most important event of my tennis career. Let's see what's going on, how I feel myself mentally tomorrow, after tomorrow, and in one week. If I feel ready, I am going to try to be there and fight for the things that I have been fighting for the last 15 years."

It’s reasonable for him to be cautious after all, though a no-show at this stage would be more than surprising, as would be him discarding a last Olympic bid. Nadal is, if nothing else, a competitive animal on par with the greatest sportsmen of all time. And he may have found a special kinship with another athlete who shares is fire in Alcaraz. Back in April, while competing in the Madrid Open, the 22-year-old opened the gate for a dream-team scenario next to his mentor at the Summer Games. "We have said how awesome it would be to play a tournament before the Olympics. I have to see how I my body responds in regard to the Games. If all goes well, we will play doubles there," Alcaraz forecasted.

The last time two Grand Slam men’s singles winners played Olympic doubles together was in 2000 with Russians Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin. Nadal, then 14, made his Olympic debut in doubles with his now coach, Carlos Moya, in 2004 one year before notching his first Grand Slam singles title.

Having missed out on London 2012 and Tokyo 2020 due to injury, he now has one more chance to enjoy an opening ceremony parade and, who knows, maybe even the taste of a third Olympic medal. His farewell tour has gone through a tortuous path so far. Yet, before the Games, comes the inevitable last Roland Garros dance.