He has won 59 of 60 matches at Roland Garros, but Friday at the men's draw ceremony, Rafael Nadal sounded more like a Lucky Loser.
"During the clay-court season, I get a little bit better week by week," Nadal said. "[In Rome] I played a lot of time, but in the end sometimes you need these things, no?
"I think I got a positive step for me, and happy about the way that I finished in Madrid and Rome. Not that happy about what I did in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but that's the sport."
Indeed, Rafalogists are terribly concerned that their man, the No. 1 seed in Paris, looks vulnerable, that he might not win his ninth French Open title in a decade. That No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic, who beat him convincingly last week in the Rome final, might be destined to collect his career Grand Slam when the fortnight ends.
"This place is the most important place in my career," Nadal said, winding up with a favorite sentiment. "Just always very emotional when I have the chance to be back here. And I'm going to try. That's it. That's the only thing that I can say."
And, with that thought, we will try to break down the men's draw, quarter by quarter. That's it:
The reward for being the most recent American to reach the fourth round seems slightly cruel. Robby Ginepri, who made a rare U.S. run in Paris in 2010 gets ... you guessed it, the ethereal Nadal in the opening round. This, of course, only reduces the American men's already grim chances of having any player, anyone at all, make even a modicum of noise on the surface on which they've long suffered.
But though Nadal likely won't be challenged in his opener, one of the more intriguing early matchups could come one round later. One of the tour's brightest young stars, Austrian Dominic Thiem, who knocked off Aussie Open winner Stan Wawrinka in Madrid a couple of weeks ago, might be waiting for Nadal. Thiem has a wicked all-court game that is reminiscent of Wawrinka's and has opened a lot of eyes in tennis circles, including Nadal's, who has heard he may one day be a "future, top, top" player.
In past years, we might not look at Nadal's quarter of the draw as one with too many obstacles, but given the air of vulnerability in his game, there's a handful of other floaters who could pose threats: The 21st seed, Nicolas Almagro, who beat Nadal in the Barcelona quarters, could pop up in the fourth round in Paris. And there's a good chance that, assuming Nadal safely navigates his way through the first week, the stylish Grigor Dimitrov will await. Dimitrov is coming off a recent title in Bucharest, and just last week made the semis of Rome.
Of course, he was squashed two and two by Nadal. So there's that.
Once again, assuming Nadal isn't troubled early on, he'd likely face compatriot David Ferrer in the quarters. Ferrer has beaten Nadal two of the past three times they've played, including a few weeks ago on the red clay in the Monte Carlo quarters. But Nadal smoked Ferrer in last year's French Open final. Thoughts, Rafa?
"I don't know," he said. "Rome, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Barcelona is past now. We are here in Roland Garros, and the only thing that matters now is have a good practice when I will be able to finish with the press. I will practice today, will practice tomorrow, good practice on Sunday, and try to be ready for the competition, no?"
Prediction: Nadal def. Ferrer to reach semifinals
On paper, this quarter of the draw is pretty straightforward. The caveat, of course, is that paper means squat on clay. But we'll spare you all of the permutations and possible upsets.
Wawrinka, the third seed, could encounter No. 26 Feliciano Lopez in the third round, but the Spaniard historically plays poorly in Paris, losing his first-round match in nine of 13 previous tries.
Wawrinka has had his share of shortcomings after a brilliant start to the season in which he won Australia and his first Masters 1000 title, in Monte Carlo. But then he lost two of three matches combined in Madrid and in Rome. So naturally, the focus of conversation at his Friday news conference focused on the important stuff:
Q: "Why did you ask ATP to change your first name? Why should we say Stan and not Stanislas?"
A: "It's just to simplify everything on the draw, my name during the press reference. That's the only reason."
The French faithful will be keeping a keen eye in this section as Richard Gasquet, the 12th seed, and No. 23 Gael Monfils attempt to wend their way to the backside of the tournament, though it should be noted that both are at less than their best. Monfils could have a date with Wawrinka in the fourth round, while Gasquet might well face Andy Murray in the same round.
Speaking of Murray, he has been awfully quiet this season, reaching only one semifinal (Acapulco). Murray, though, did show a flash of Grand Slam form last week in Rome, where he took Nadal to three sets before bowing out.
Murray has no serious threats at all until Gasquet. But again, that's on paper. So ...
Prediction: Murray def. Wawrinka to reach semifinals
First up is Lukas Lacko and then the winner of two qualifiers in the second round. Just what the 32-year-old needs after looking rusty in losing his first match in Rome to Frenchman Jeremy Chardy. Federer has been practicing a lot and says he's ready to go.
Berdych, for his part, could see dangerous No. 27 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round.
The two highest-ranked Americans are also in this quarter.
No. 10 seed John Isner meets Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the first round, and another, vaguely familiar Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut, looms in the second. If he can beat Mikhail Kukushkin, Mahut could find himself opposite his celebrated nemesis, the man who required more than 11 hours and 183 games over three days to beat him four years ago at Wimbledon in the longest match ever.
Sam Querrey, meanwhile, gets Italy's Filippo Volandri in the first round and, with some luck, could see Dmitry Tursunov in the second. The winner would get Federer in the third round. A possible fourth-round opponent for Federer: No. 18 seed Ernests Gulbis from Latvia.
Prediction: Federer def. Berdych to reach semifinals
Novak Djokovic, the man who would be [the] King [of clay], has a comfortable spot at the very bottom of the 128-man draw.
He plays Joao Sousa of Portugal in the first round, which should be a straight-sets affair. Then, it gets interesting. If Frenchman Jeremy Chardy gets past Daniel Gimeno-Traver, he could see Djokovic in the second. This is the same guy who slipped past Federer in Rome. A possible third-round opponent for Djokovic: No. 25 seed Marin Cilic, who has been playing well. The fourth? No. 13 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a possibility.
At the top of the bracket, No. 8 seed Milos Raonic -- a semifinalist in Rome -- plays Nick Kyrgios. Next up will be a Czech Republic player, because Lukas Rosol and Jiri Vesely clash in the first round. No. 29 seed Gilles Simon (if he gets through the winner of Michael Russell and Alejandro Gonzalez) could be the third-round opponent, and No. 9 seed Kei Nishikori looms in the fourth.
Prediction: Djokovic def. Nishikori to reach semifinals
Semifinal prediction: Nadal def. Murray; Djokovic def. Federer
Final: Djokovic def. Nadal