Germany’s Alexander Zverev thought his brother was joking when he informed him he was playing 14-time champion Rafael Nadal in the opening round of the French Open 2024.

Nadal, who has barely played this year, will be making his last appearance at the Grand Slam he has owned for nearly two decades but is not seeded because of his lowly ranking.

There was always the danger that the Spaniard could be paired with one of the top players and Zverev drew the short straw, even though he will be a firm favourite to win.

It will be their first meeting since the 2022 semifinal when Zverev retired hurt after suffering a serious ankle injury, Nadal going on to win his 14th title by thrashing Casper Ruud in the final.

“I was on court with (Andrey) Rublev yesterday on Chatrier practising, and then after the practice was over, which was actually a great practice, my brother told me,” Zverev, a semifinalist for the last three years, told reporters on Friday.

“I actually thought he was joking in the beginning. But then, yeah, it is what it is. I mean, obviously, to be very honest, I wanted to play Rafa again in my career, in his career, because I didn’t want my last memory of me playing against Rafa to be me leaving the court in a wheelchair,” he said.

“Ideally, I would have liked to play him in the latter stage of the tournament. It’s a tough draw, but it’s a tough draw for both of us. We’ll see how it goes on Monday,” Zverev said.

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Some have suggested Nadal should have been seeded, given his record at Roland Garros, but Zverev said that organisers had no choice but to stick to the ATP rankings.

“Of course I can guarantee you Novak (Djokovic) didn’t want to play Rafa in the first round and (Carlos) Alcaraz, and Jannik (Sinner) didn’t want to play him,” Zverev said.

“I don’t want to play him in the first round, but it is how it is. I think he’s excited and I’m excited for it,” he said.

Nadal’s domination at Roland Garros, where for many years he looked invincible, means he retains the aura, even if his powers have diminished because of injuries.

“For me, in my mind, I’m going to play peak Rafa Nadal. That’s what I expect him to be,” Zverev said. “I expect him to be at his absolute best. I expect him to play the best tennis he’s played in a long time on this court. That’s my mindset going into this match.”

World number five Daniil Medvedev said he was relieved that he had avoided Nadal in the first round.

“First round would be tough against someone who won 14 titles here,” the Russian said. “I practised with Rafa yesterday and he played pretty well, like I felt much better than what I saw on TV in Rome and Madrid.”

“I’m going to be there watching a big match. I’m not shy to say I’m happy it’s not me playing against him,” he added.