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 the "King of Clay" are looking 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 long-time 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.
Nadal has fallen to No. 7 in the ATP rankings since coming back from injuries, dropping his seeding to sixth, the lowest it's ever been at the clay-court major. That left him more vulnerable than usual to the bad luck that bit in Friday's draw.
U.S. & World
"Everybody had their eyes on this potential clash between Nadal and Djokovic," tournament director Gilbert Ysern said. "It will be tough for the loser, because they seem to be the best players on clay at the moment."
This season, Nadal has had his worst run-up ever to tennis' second major, losing five times on clay. But Ysern said there was never any thought of bumping up Nadal's seeding to better protect him in the draw.
"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," Ysern said. "We did not even think about it and he did not ask for it, it's not his style to ask for anything."
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. Her sister Venus got 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 seed Caroline Wozniacki and sixth-seeded Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, who broke through last season with semifinals at the Australian Open and the French and a final at Wimbledon, also are in the Williams sisters' half. So, too, is fourth seed Petra Kvitova, a two-time winner of Wimbledon still without a final in any of the other three majors.
On Sharapova's side of the draw, eighth seed 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 semis. Sharapova begins the defense of her title against 49th-ranked Kaia Kanepi.
Nadal, as the defending men's champion, was called upon to draw out the names of the seeded women, with the fingers on his left hand already covered with sticking plasters. Nadal rubbed his chin and looked less than comfortable as Sharapova drew out the names of the seeded 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" into the tournament, the 17-time Grand Slam champion noted. "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.