PARIS: The tennis equivalent of climbing three mountains, just to reach the Roland Garros final. Never have the obstacles loomed so large between Rafael Nadal and another trophy on the red clay of Paris.
The draw Friday could hardly have been more unkind for the nine-time champion whose confidence and reign as "King of Clay" look shaky.
There were "oohs" and "aahs" in the auditorium as defending women's champion Maria Sharapova plucked out Nadal's name to set up another potential blockbuster encounter with top-ranked Novak Djokovic. Only this time, the finalists of 2012 and 2014 are on course to meet in the quarterfinals.
Just to get that far, Nadal could have to beat one of tennis' rising stars, 10th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, in the fourth round. And possibly lurking in the semifinals could be Andy Murray, the 2013 Wimbledon and 2012 U.S. Open champion who hasn't lost a match since marrying longtime girlfriend Kim Sears last month.
Nadal has faced tough draws before. In 2011, 2013 and again last year, he beat three top 10 players on his way to victory. And his 66-1 record at Roland Garros, with his only loss coming in the fourth round in 2009, means he cannot be written off despite recent chinks in his usually iron-clad clay-court game and self-belief.
Still, if the June 7 final again finishes with Nadal biting the Musketeers Cup, this Roland Garros could be his crowning achievement, given the traps awaiting him.
"I think I can do it," Nadal said Friday. "Do it is another thing."
The 28-year-old Spaniard has fallen to No. 7 in the ATP rankings since coming back from a right wrist injury, appendix surgery and treatment on his back, dropping his seeding to six, his lowest ever at Roland Garros. That left Nadal more vulnerable than usual to the bad luck that bit in Friday's draw. But tournament director Gilbert Ysern said there was never any thought of bumping up Nadal's seeding to shield him.
"Everybody had their eyes on this potential clash between Nadal and Djokovic," Ysern said. "Three or four years ago we thought about giving him a higher seeding when he dropped in the rankings because of a long lay-off due to an injury. But this year it's different, because his ranking dropped mainly due to his results on court. We did not even think about it and he did not ask for it. It's not his style to ask for anything."
Djokovic has never beaten Nadal in six attempts at Roland Garros. Despite the prospect of meeting him again in the quarterfinals, the eight-time major winner was in jovial mood as tournament organizers feted his 28th birthday on Friday by delivering a beautiful tiered cake to his news conference, shortly after Djokovic had finished explaining that Nadal, because of his almost unblemished record at Roland Garros, is still "definitely right up there in top favorites to win."
"Mmm," Djokovic said as he tucked into a gluten- and sugar-free slice, as per his diet. "Looks like my wedding cake."
Nadal has had his worst run-up ever this season to tennis' second major, losing five times on clay, including straight-set defeats to Murray in a Madrid final and in a Monte Carlo semifinal to Djokovic.
"It's not terrible. But if we compare with other years, obviously looks bad, no? That's always going to happen when you achieve a lot in the past," Nadal said.
In the women's draw, 19-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams faces a potential third-round match against former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, seeded 27th.
Williams will face a qualifier in the first round and said treatment has helped alleviate her painful right elbow. Her sister Venus got a tough first-round opponent in Sloane Stephens, a semifinalist at the 2013 Australian Open who has reached the fourth round for the last three years at Roland Garros.
The Williams sisters could then meet each other in the fourth round if they get that far. Fifth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki and sixth-seeded Eugenie Bouchard, who broke through last season by reaching the semifinals at the Australian and French Opens and the final at Wimbledon, also are in the Williams sisters' half. So, too, is fourth-seeded Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion still without a final in any of the other three majors.
On Sharapova's side of the draw, eighth-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro looms as a tough potential opponent for the second-seeded Russian in the quarterfinals. If both get that far, Sharapova and the losing finalist she beat last year, third-seeded Simona Halep, could meet in the semifinals. Sharapova begins the defense of her title against 49th-ranked Kaia Kanepi.
Nadal, as defending men's champion, was called upon to draw out the names of the seeded women, with fingers on his left hand already taped. Nadal rubbed his chin and looked less than comfortable as Sharapova drew out names of the men.
With Djokovic, Nadal, the third-seeded Murray and 2013 runner-up David Ferrer all in the same half of the draw, the road for Roger Federer on the other side opened up.
"There is a chance to go very deep," the 17-time Grand Slam champion said. "How deep remains to be seen depending on the level of play."
To reach what would be his sixth final in Paris, and first since losing to Nadal in 2011, the 2009 winner could have to overcome 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals.
Fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori and fourth-seeded Tomas Berdych are also in Federer's half. They could meet in the quarterfinals, with a potential semifinal against Federer or Wawrinka to follow.