Men's draw: Nadal avoids key contenders

 - Dan Imhoff

While the world No.1 perches at the top of the draw, the bottom half is loaded with potential title threats.

Roland-Garros 2018, Rafael Nadal, entraînement, practice©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

The road to an unprecedented 11th Roland-Garros title for Rafael Nadal appears smoothly paved, with the Spaniard’s greatest potential obstacles strewn throughout a stacked bottom half of the draw, well away from the defending champion.

The top seed owns a phenomenal 79-2 record on the clay in Paris and there will be some relief that he cannot face Novak Djokovic – one of only two men to have beaten him here in his career – until the final.

That’s assuming the Serbian would even be able to conjure his best run at a Grand Slam since the 2016 US Open to reach the decider.

The only player to have beaten Nadal on clay this season, fifth seed Dominic Thiem, joins 20th seed Djokovic and 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka in No.2 seed Alexander Zverev’s half of the draw.

Up in the top half, Nadal opens against Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov with a likely second-round assignment against Estoril champion Joao Sousa, of Portugal, or Argentine Guido Pella. French 27th seed Richard Gasquet is a projected third-round opponent, before either 14th seed Jack Sock or rising Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov in loom in round four.

Sixth-seeded South African Kevin Anderson is drawn to meet Nadal in the quarter-finals - which would be a rematch of their 2017 US Open final - before a potential semi-final showdown with either No.3 seed Marin Cilic or the ever-dangerous fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro.

While having shown glimpses of his former brilliance in a stuttered climb back from elbow and off-court issues, Djokovic is nowhere near the tour de force he was in 2011-13 and 2015-16 when he reached at least three Grand Slam finals each season.

He has beaten Kei Nishikori twice in this clay-court swing leading in and played Nadal close in a straight-sets semi-final defeat in Rome last week, but will have to potentially navigate a way past a qualifier, former finalist David Ferrer, 13th seed Roberto Bautista Agut and fourth seed Grigor Dimitrov just to reach the quarter-finals.

There, either eighth-seeded Belgian David Goffin or consistent Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta could await should they hold off the flashy brilliance of Gael Monfils and Nick Kyrgios in their respective projected third-round clashes.

Parallels can be drawn between Nadal’s pre Roland-Garros clay-court preparations this season and his last, in which three titles were added – and only one defeat registered. Both times it has been the free-swinging Austrian Thiem to have inflicted those losses; this time it was in the quarter-finals in Madrid.

Thiem faces a blockbuster re-match of the Madrid final - in which he fell to Zverev - should the pair reach the quarter-finals in Paris this year.

A two-time Roland-Garros semi-finalist, Thiem could meet rising Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round with Nishikori on course to meet him in the fourth round.

Last year’s runner-up and 2015 champion Wawrinka won his first match in nearly four months this week in Geneva after surgery and persistent problems with his left knee. He faces a tricky opener against the very player who ended his Roland-Garros title defence in the first round in 2016 - Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

Wawrinka could meet top-ranked Frenchman Lucas Pouille in the third round, followed by a possible fourth round task against second seed Zverev.

The German, still searching for his maiden Grand Slam quarter-final, has had a clay-court season second only to Nadal’s with trophies in Munich and Madrid, a runner-up finish in Rome and a semi-final run in Monte-Carlo. He opens against Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis.