The weeping was broken only by his high-pitched screams as he writhed in the red ash of Paris. 15,000 spectators on the Court Philippe Chatrier witnessed a drama. Alexander Zverev, this proud, self-confident model athlete, bursting with strength and energy, was suddenly very weak and helpless. Reflexive attempts to stand up were unsuccessful. A sprained ankle while sliding on the baseline had suddenly thrown the 1.98 meter giant to a horizontal position and, with the help of physiotherapists, shortly afterwards into a wheelchair.

It may also have been the pain in the damaged right ankle that brought the extreme emotions to the fore. More likely, however, that the mental anguish caused the reaction: bitterness, disappointment and anger broke out. Zverev, it was clear to him immediately after the tragic fall, could no longer continue playing this match, which should have been one of the greatest of his career. Task. End. It’s over.

A moment, just a small wrong load, had slowed down his rush to the tennis throne in the semifinals of the French Open. In the weeks in Paris, Zverev seemed ready for the big hit, matured, fit and focused. But now everything was wiped away in one go: the chance of beating clay court king Rafael Nadal in his living room was gone, the dream of the first triumph in a Grand Slam tournament burst and also prevented the leap to first place in the world rankings. This weekend could have ushered in a new tennis era; instead, there will be a break, the length of which further investigations on Saturday will have to provide information.

The many questions that the electrifying match had previously raised remained unanswered. The most exciting: would Rafael Nadal still have enough reserves of strength on his 36th birthday to endure a match of this intensity over four or even five sets? The Spaniard was leading 7: 6, 6: 6 at the time of the accident, but had continued to deteriorate physically in the second round, plagued by the consequences of his chronic foot disease. What a tragic point that in the end it was Zverev’s foot that brought the epic to its undeserved and abrupt end.

All the more astonishing are the scenes that subsequently took place in the Stade Roland Garros. Zverev had been pushed into the catacombs in a wheelchair to have his foot examined. His surrender wasn’t official at the time, but anyone who heard the screams or saw in slow motion the abnormal angle of his foot at the moment of misfortune knew there would be no comeback.

The Hamburger, however, returned to the pitch after six minutes and showed a reaction that, despite winning 19 titles and reaching the final of the US Open, can be classified as the greatest moment of his career for the time being. Supported by two crutches, his right leg bent with his bare foot, Zverev made his way back to the net to applause from the audience.

Nadal, who had followed him into the dressing room, gave the impression of silent support, walking diagonally behind his opponent. A beautiful, respectful picture that Zverev let shine shortly afterwards. The hothead, not without reason labeled as arrogant and egocentric, headed straight for the referee’s chair, shook hands with Renaud Lichtenstein and made the task official. He then congratulated Nadal, who returned the hug.

“It’s very hard for him. I am very sorry about that. He played incredible tennis,” said Nadal: “I know how much he fights to win a Grand Slam tournament. I’m sure he’ll win not just one, but several.”

On the way back to the dressing room, the unlucky fellow used the applause of the spectators to take a short break. He raised a crutch in greeting and thanks to the audience, who chanted his nickname, “Sascha! Sascha!” Even if the disappointment will remain for a long time, at least the first tears had dried. Big gestures after a great match so far.

The fact that 3:13 hours had already been played when the two unequal rivals entered the home straight of the second set documents the extraordinary intensity and tension that the match, which was conducted as a battle of attrition, had generated.

“Move the lines, with style” was the slogan the marketing people of the French Tennis Federation came up with for their biggest tournament this year: push the boundaries with style.

Not only Nadal, who consistently returned Zverev’s serve from the green tarpaulin at the end of the square, apparently understood. In any case, time and space no longer seemed to play a role under the closed roof due to the rain.

World-class tennis, as he had only shown in the Olympic tennis tournament in Tokyo, gave Zverev a 4: 2 lead at the beginning, which Nadal, who subsequently became more aggressive, converted into a 4: 5, indicating that it was up to him day would not stick to the four to five liters that he normally sweats out during a match. Halfway through that memorable first set, the Mallorcan had perspired so much that the liquid he had in his pocket affected his second serve. The wet balls were not conducive to his top spin game.

He missed three set balls before Zverev equalized to make it 5: 5 and missed a small set ball packed as a break ball when Nadal served. In the tie-break, the German then seemed unassailable 6:2, but also missed four chances in a row due to breathtaking blows from the opponent. When Nadal used his sixth chance to make it 10:8 in the tie-break a little later, 98 minutes had already been played – the longest set of the tournament.

And he immediately demanded tribute. The square dug up by the two gladiators was freshly cleaned while Nadal put on dry clothes. Also due to the advanced time, the setting gave the impression that not just another set, but a second match was being played.

Nadal, who, like Zverev, had been in action for more than 14 hours at this French Open, lacked the strength to do so. His injuries would and have already ended several other playing careers. Some may find it irresponsible that after 13 victories at the Bois de Boulogne he still went there to add a final 14 to his series. But maybe he wants to use this one last participation to say goodbye to the stage at the place of his greatest success.

The sacrifices he is willing to make are unparalleled. He had left the Jean Bouin training ground limping the day before the semifinals. The problems with his foot are chronic, and the two marathon matches he had to play against Felix Auger-Aliassime and Novak Djokovic this week should have increased the pain to a level that he can hardly bear. He was only able to make it through the two-week French Open with the constant support of his personal doctor.

In any case, the first consequences became visible in the second sentence. His movements became slower and more and more often he was late with his punches. Nadal tried to keep the rallies shorter, avoided the long rallies and increasingly gave the impression that a four or five-set match of this intensity was simply no longer possible. Round two was marked by a fight against his own body: Rafa Nadal and the 40 bastards.

And Zverev? Despite losing the first set, he held all the trumps on his racket. At the latest when the Spaniard had also given up his fourth service game after the first three, the momentum was on the challenger’s side.

However, the German once again showed a lack of determination, which not only reminded his brother on the commentator microphone of the TV station “Eurosport” of the final at the US Open 2020, which was lost recklessly and despite a 2-0 set lead. A double mistake cost him 5:2, two the possible set win to 6:3.

Nadal’s struggles with reason and his own physique therefore retained their meaning. If he wasn’t able to do great things himself, he might just have to stay in the game and trust his opponent’s weaknesses. To make it 5:5 he served for the first time in the round. The 6: 6 then resulted from a mistake by Zverev, who had not had an optimal position on the longline with his forehand and had twisted his ankle… What an unsatisfactory end. For all.

“Being back in the Paris final is a dream,” said Zverev after the demolition: “But at the moment it’s hard to find words when I just saw him crying in the dressing room.”