Rafael Nadal Gets Tough Draw For 2015 French Open

rafael nadal gets tough draw in french open 2015

Rafael Nadal has had the tennis world on his shoulders this season, and many times a weaker player would have just shrugged and given up, but not Rafa. Even after falling to fifth place, jumping up to fourth place and then tumbling to seventh in the tennis rankings have not stopped the Spanish powerhouse. He even had the good fortune of Novak Djovic pulling out of the Madrid Open only to be bested by Andy Murray.

At the Rome Open, both the world and he were shocked when Stan Wawrinka knocked him out of the quarter-finals. Now just as he’s set to enter the French Open that he’s won nine times, he is given yet another huge obstacle: Novak Djokovic in the quater-finals.

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.

Now back to Nadal:

“Not nice Maria,” joked Toni Nadal in a French radio interview on Friday.

Or maybe Uncle Toni wasn’t joking. As defending women’s champion at the French Open, Maria Sharapova had the honors of pulling the names out of the trophy for the draw of this year’s men’s tournament.

The result of her handiwork? Toni’s nephew Rafael Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion, is in the same quarter of the draw as Novak Djokovic, who is the rightful favorite this year to win the only Grand Slam singles title he lacks.

That could mean a match in the quarterfinals with the gravitas of a final. That did not feel like much of a birthday present for Djokovic, who turned 28 on Friday, and it might not feel like much of a birthday present for Nadal if they play on June 3, which would be his 29th birthday.

Neither man seemed terribly surprised by the turn of events.

“I would love to arrive to that match; that’s my reaction, no?” Nadal said. “I don’t see an easy way to arrive to that match. I am focused on the things that I have to do before that. If I arrive to that match, we’re going to have two days to talk about it.”

“I would love to arrive to that match; that’s my reaction, no?” Nadal said. “I don’t see an easy way to arrive to that match. I am focused on the things that I have to do before that. If I arrive to that match, we’re going to have two days to talk about it.”

“I said a lot of time in my career, I’m not gonna lie if it’s not 100 percent necessary,” he said, sparking laughter in the press room with his caveat. “And that’s it. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but at the end of the day you can lie here but you cannot lie on the court.”

The truth so far in 2015 is that Djokovic is back in a league of his own, sweeping nearly all before him on hard courts and clay: winning the Australian Open and four Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and, most recently, Rome.

“He’s head and shoulders the best player in the world,” said Brad Gilbert, the coach and analyst. “He’s maybe playing better tennis than anyone I’ve seen play the game.”

That is quite a statement in an era when Roger Federer is still ranked No. 2 and when memories of his best days are still fresh. But Djokovic is a suffocating presence when he is hugging the baseline, making the court look intimidatingly small to his opponents, who can find no apparent weakness.

Djokovic has been a ruthless finisher this year. He was pushed to a third set in three matches in Miami and won those decisive sets 6-1, 6-0 and 6-0. In Rome, he was pushed to a third set in three matches, too, and won the decisive sets: 6-3, 6-3 and 6-1. That is a reflection of great fitness and of great confidence, and though the oft-injured, oft-battered Nadal does look fit, at this stage, his self-belief clearly has a few dents and scratches.

Feeling shaky and feeling drained of hope and desire are different matters. Nadal still looks hungry, even after nine titles on the red clay of Paris and a career record here of 66-1 that looks like a typo.

“He always had a big title on clay coming into Roland Garros and it wasn’t the case this year, so it is probably a bit different approach for him,” said Djokovic on Friday. “But regardless of that, I think he still is playing his best tennis on clay courts in Paris. He has lost only one match in his entire career here, and I think that speaks enough.”

Djokovic has beaten Nadal 20 times (and five times on clay) but never at Roland Garros, where the only man to beat Nadal remains Robin Soderling, who did so in the fourth round in 2009.

If any place is Nadal’s restorative spa, this is the place. From the moment Nadal arrived on Wednesday, he has been logging the hours on the main Philippe Chatrier Court and swatting the ball with the intensity of a man who is not simply tuning up for the real thing but trying to make significant gains in practice.

“When you lose more than other years, it’s obvious the confidence is a little bit less,” Nadal said, adding that “since January, day after day, I think I improved a lot.”

Djokovic is not Nadal’s only challenge in a draw so top-heavy that no engineer would approve it. Though his first-round opponent, the French wildcard Quentin Halys, casts a small shadow, Nadal would next face either Nicolás Almagro or Alexandr Dolgopolov. He could play Grigor Dimitrov, the No. 10 seed, in the fourth round and Andy Murray may be waiting in the semifinals.

But Nadal has always seemed to enjoy the chase more than the meal, which is surely one of the big reasons why he has nine French Open trophies.

On Friday, shortly after the draw, he was back on the Chatrier court, practicing with the American Donald Young. At one stage, Young hit a flashy drop shot and then a flashier passing shot on the run that Nadal stabbed for a winner. Young shrieked, grinned and wheeled in the red clay to share the fun with Nadal.

But there would be no eye contact. The Spaniard already had his back turned and was returning briskly to the baseline. More than ever, he is all business, but anybody who has watched Djokovic lately knows even that may not be enough.