The draw for the 2014 French Open takes place Friday, when the road to the final for tennis' biggest stars will be revealed.
Azarenka's absence will be felt, as she continues to deal with a nagging foot injury. There is at least a shade of uncertainty on the men's side, too.
Rafael Nadal has won at Roland Garros an Open Era-record eight times in just nine attempts but has had inconsistent results this season. The King of Clay is coming off a loss to Novak Djokovic in the Rome Masters final, which marks his third loss of the clay-court campaign. It's commonplace for Nadal to sweep the titles leading up to the French Open, but he's shown rare vulnerability on his preferred surface.
It's hard to envision such a perennial winner in Nadal being anywhere else other than the top of the men's draw. However, Djokovic could possibly leapfrog Nadal as the No. 1 seed in the season's second Grand Slam tournament.
That should add at least some suspense to the draw process, so let's take a closer look at how it works, along with more analysis on how both should play out.
Date: Friday, May 23
Time: 5:30 a.m. ET
Where: Roland Garros, Paris, France
Live Stream: Roland-Garros TV
Men's Singles Draw Analysis
The thought is that Nadal should still be No. 1 given his amazing record at the French, leaving Djokovic as a legitimate second seed who could knock the Spanish sensation off his pedestal.
That's easier said than done, though, and there will be pressure on Djokovic to break through in this event. The French Open is the only Grand Slam event Djokovic has yet to win, and he lost to Nadal as the No. 1 seed in the semifinals last year.
ESPN Stats & Info notes how Djokovic still has a losing record versus Nadal in clay finals:
Beyond the top two, there is quite a bit of parity, leaving a lot of leeway for how the rest of the draw could play out. Roger Federer is the only one to win at Roland Garros during Nadal's reign of greatness, but he isn't playing to the level he was in his prime. After an opening loss to Jeremy Chardy in Rome, it's even more difficult to get a gauge on Federer at the moment.
One elite player on the men's side who hasn't found his groove all season is Andy Murray, who pushed Nadal to three sets at the Italian Open before falling in the quarterfinals. The reigning Wimbledon champion hasn't been quite fit in 2014, with no singles titles to his name. This could be his big chance to get back on track, though it will be an arduous road given that he'll be seeded lower than usual.
Former women's No. 1 and ESPN analyst Chris Evert weighed in on Murray's strong form:
Federer and Murray rank fourth and eighth, respectively, (h/t ATPWorldTour.com), as Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka holds the third spot. Last year's French Open runner-up David Ferrer is a fitness fiend who should be a tough out yet again, while Tomas Berdych's all-court style should translate well to Roland Garros yet again.
Among the next tier of players after Nadal and Djokovic, Federer has to garner consideration for the third spot, but since Wawrinka defeated him in the Monte Carlo final, he deserves the No. 3 seed.
Women's Singles Draw Analysis
The reigning champion in Williams will be perhaps even more of a prohibitive favorite than Nadal, even though she won for just the second time in her career here in 2013.
Christopher Clarey of The New York Times certainly felt that way after Williams dominated Sara Errani 6-3, 6-0 in the Rome Masters final:
Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen expressed a similar sentiment in her analysis:
Williams looked forward to what was next on the horizon in Paris following the impressive victory, per WTATennis.com:
Today gave me a great opportunity to understand the atmosphere I'll have in Paris, too. It was a great opportunity for me. Paris is a Grand Slam and you think differently, you have a little more nerves, everyone's uptight and excited, the crowd is different, and energy levels can be different too.
By not having Azarenka enter the tournament, Williams got a break of sorts, but there is still at least a couple of formidable competitors for her to navigate through. Australian Open winner Li Na won the French in 2011 and should be among the candidates for the second seed, even though she lost in the quarterfinals in the two clay events preceding Roland Garros.
Career Grand Slam title holder Maria Sharapova capped off her stunning feat by triumphing at the French Open two years ago. She also made the final versus Williams last year, only to fall, and Sharapova has been a bit up and down as of late. After winning two straight titles, she lost in the third round of the Italian Open. Nevertheless, Sharapova can't be counted out despite the fact that she could be seeded outside the top five.
There just don't seem to be that many legitimate threats to Williams beyond those two, though. Clay is not often Williams' best surface, since she prefers to wail away on the baseline and overpower her opponents, which is trickier to do at Roland Garros.
As her career has worn on, Williams has learned to adjust her game, and she put it all together in ousting Sharapova in last year's final 6-4, 6-4. Something similar could be in store, as Williams is just too strong not to endorse as a back-to-back title holder.
Although it isn't shattering the mold to pick Nadal and Williams as the front-runners yet again to be No. 1 seeds and defend their trophies, they deserve their gaudy statuses. Another title for Nadal would distinguish himself even more against the best clay-court players of all time and put him closer to catching Federer for the all-time Grand Slam titles record. Williams would confirm that her game can indeed translate anywhere by taking home the top prize for the second time in a row.
But before all that history becomes possible, the highly anticipated draw has to transpire, which will be more exciting with regard to where the players fall who have to deal with the likes of Nadal and Williams.
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