The French Open begins on Sunday, and there are a number of factors - from the opposition to the weather conditions - that could pose new problems for 12-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard arrives at Roland Garros without having won a single title on clay this season, something that has never happened during his dominion over the European clay swing in the last 15 years.
However, it is to be noted that 2020 is not a normal year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the lead-up to the Major event in Paris. Without the traditional two-month-long buildup, the players are far less match-fit for the toil on the terre battue.
The 'King of Clay' Rafael Nadal himself is distinctly off the mark, as we saw in Rome. Returning from a seven-month layoff, Nadal struggled mightily in the Italian Open quarterfinals, losing to Diego Schwartzman in straight sets.
That said, Nadal is a different beast in the best-of-five format. Moreover, with his sights set on equaling Roger Federer's record tally of 20 Grand Slams, the World No. 2 will have no shortage of motivation to tear through the draw at Roland Garros.
Meanwhile, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and World No. 3 Dominic Thiem are coming in on the back of their own confidence-boosting runs. Djokovic swept through the field at the Rome Masters, dropping just one set on his way to a 36th Masters title, while Thiem won his maiden Slam at the 2020 US Open earlier this month.
Moreover, the conditions in Paris could well turn out to be an interesting game-changer in the trio's respective bids for the Coupe des Mousquetaires. The tournament is usually held in the summer of May-June, but is now being held during the Parisian autumn. That will change several aspects that affect the courts, including temperature, moisture and wind.
Whether these conditions will affect the top dogs as they work their way through the draw remains to be seen. The hunt for the last Grand Slam of the year begins on 27 September, and here's a look at how the men's draw is likely to unfold at the 2020 French Open.
1st quarter: Novak Djokovic seems to have it relatively easy
Expected quarterfinal: Novak Djokovic (1) vs Matteo Berrettini (7)
The World No. 1 headlines the first quarter as per usual, and has been gifted a relatively easy draw compared to his rivals Nadal and Thiem.
Novak Djokovic starts against the seemingly harmless Mikael Ymer, after which he could face either Ricardas Berankis or Hugo Dellien. The Serb's draw gets slightly tricky from there on, as he might face Hubert Hurkacz in the third round.
Djokovic was run close by the towering Pole at Wimbledon last year. But given that he has already found his rhythm on the dirt, he will likely make it to the second week of the French Open with ease.
Claycourt specialist Cristian Garin or the big-hitting Karen Khachanov might be tasked with taking on Djokovic in the fourth round, but neither of them would be expected to give the World No. 1 much trouble.
At the other end of the quarter is seventh-seeded Matteo Berrettini, who has a tough draw. The Italian will likely have to beat Jan-Lennard Struff and either one of Roberto Bautista Agut or 2020 US Open semifinalist Pablo Carreno Busta to make the quarterfinals.
The 10th-seeded Bautista Agut will face former quarterfinalist Richard Gasquet in his opening match. The Spaniard happens to be the only player in Djokovic's draw who has tested him on the terre battue in the past, but will have to be on top of his game if he intends to make the quarterfinals of Roland Garros for the first time in his career.
Bautista Agut's countryman Carreno Busta is the only player in the quarter besides Gasquet to have reached the French Open quarterfinals in the past. A rematch of the US Open encounter between Novak Djokovic and Pablo Carreno Busta - which ended with the Serb getting disqualified for hitting a lineswoman with the ball - could be on the cards in Paris.
Predicted quarterfinal result: Novak Djokovic def. Pablo Carreno Busta
Dark horse: Ugo Humbert
1st round match to watch: Roberto Bautista Agut vs Richard Gasquet
2nd quarter: Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev on a collision course
Expected quarterfinal: Daniil Medvedev (4) vs Stefanos Tsitsipas (5)
Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev are two of the most successful members of the 'Next Gen'. But while they have tried hard at an individual level to challenge the Big 3, the pair have never gotten along well with each other.
At Roland Garros, the two might face each other in a grudge quarterfinal match - assuming they are able to work through their respective draws. Medvedev leads Tsitsipas by a huge margin of 5-1 in their head-to-head rivalry, but has a tough path to navigate before he can meet his Greek arch-rival.
The fourth seed faces Hungary's Marton Fucsovics in the first round, and the going gets even tougher for the Russian in the second - where he is expected to face claycourt specialist Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
In the third round, the World No. 4 could face Serbia's Dusan Lajovic in what has 'five-set slugfest' written all over it. The Serb reached the final at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters last year, and is a formidable force on clay.
If Medvedev is able to get the better of these opponents, a rematch of his US Open quarterfinal against the in-form Andrey Rublev could await the lanky Russian in the fourth round.
Tsitsipas does not have a straightforward path to reaching the last eight either, with a possible second-round match against claycourt specialist Pablo Cuevas. The Greek had to dig deep to get the better of the Uruguayan in Hamburg, and his inexperience in the best-of-five format might make the second-round clash even tougher.
Tsitsipas will likely face 26th seeded Filip Krajinovic in the third round, and Denis Shapovalov after that.
The Canadian has improved his game considerably this season, and will provide tough resistance to the Greek if he makes the second week of the event.
Predicted quarterfinal result: Andrey Rublev def. Denis Shapovalov
Dark horse: Filip Krajinovic
1st round match to watch: Denis Shapovalov vs Gilles Simon
Also check out: The Complete French Open 2020 Schedule
3rd quarter: Can Dominic Thiem continue his trend of reaching the final four in Paris?
Expected quarterfinal: Dominic Thiem (3) vs Gael Monfils (8)
Now that he has finally quenched his thirst for a maiden Grand Slam title (after losing his previous three Major finals), Dominic Thiem will set foot on the terre-battue of Roland Garros this year with much less pressure.
But while the Austrian has more confidence now, and is also coming in with plenty of rest, the effect of those things could be nullified by the tough draw he's been handed.
Thiem opens against former World No. 3 Marin Cilic, in a repeat of their third-round match at Flushing Meadows last month (where Cilic took a set). The Croat has never enjoyed playing on clay, but the heavier conditions in Paris might give him a chance to make a match out of this.
Thiem could then face big-serving Reilly Opelka in the second round, and 2020 Italian Open semifinalist Casper Ruud in the third. Ruud impressed clay aficionados with his Nadal-esque game in Rome, and might prove to be a tough opponent for Thiem in his route to the second week.
The Austrian might have an easier fourth round match though, with an unfit Stan Wawrinka and an erratic Felix Auger-Aliassime being the seeds projected to face him at that stage.
Headlining the top half of Thiem's quarter is the eighth-seeded Gael Monfils, who has been quite flat since the resumption of the tour. A likelier opponent for Thiem in the quarterfinals would be the 12th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, who took Nadal out in straight sets at Rome last week.
The 5'7" Argentine is known to be the best pound-for-pound hitter on the tour, and had reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2018.
Schwartzman has a fairly easy draw to deal with too in Paris, as he is projected to face Croatia's Borna Coric in the third round and either Gael Monfils or Taylor Fritz in the fourth.
Predicted quarterfinal result: Dominic Thiem def. Diego Schwartzman
Dark horse: Tommy Paul
1st round match to watch: Stan Wawrinka vs Andy Murray
4th quarter: Rafael Nadal looking for a century of wins at Roland Garros
Expected quarterfinal: Rafael Nadal (2) vs Alexander Zverev (6)
Despite exiting the Italian Open with a shocking loss, Rafael Nadal remains the man to beat in Paris as he mounts his bid for a record-extending 13th Roland Garros title.
Nadal totally owned the terre battue since his first appearance at the tournament in 2005. From his French Open debut against Germany's Lars Burgmuller to his 2019 final beatdown of Dominic Thiem, Nadal has subjugated a long line of opponents on his way to compiling a 93-2 record in Paris.
In what seems like a harmless draw, Nadal opens against Egor Gerasimov before facing a qualifier or USA's Mackenzie McDonald in the second round. And in the third, Nadal is slated to face either Dan Evans or Kei Nishikori.
While Evans doesn't enjoy slugging it out on the dirt, Nishikori has just come back from an injury and has not found his rhythm yet. The Spaniard is expected to reach the second week of the Major without much trouble, but might have a tricky fourth round against either Fabio Fognini or John Isner.
Fognini has beaten Nadal three times on clay in the past, and Isner gave the World No. 2 a big scare in the first round of 2011 French Open as he stretched him to five sets. Given that Rafael Nadal had a few serving woes in Rome, he will have to be on top of his game to take the initiative with his forehand against either of these two opponents.
At the other end of the quarter is World No. 7 and 2020 USO runner-up Alexander Zverev. The 23-year-old faces Austria's Dennis Novak in the first round, before possibly crossing swords with local hope Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the second.
Zverev could then face either Alex de Minaur or Juan Ignacio Londero in the third round, and 11th-seeded David Goffin in the Round of 16.
The German has frequently turned seemingly straightforward matches into dogfights in the past, especially at the Slams, so this draw may not be as easy as it looks on paper. Zverev will need to be sharp right from the outset if he wants a smooth campaign in Paris.
Predicted quarterfinal result: Rafael Nadal def. Alexander Zverev
Dark horse: Jannik Sinner
1st round match to watch: David Goffin vs Jannik Sinner
Semifinal predictions: Novak Djokovic def. Andrey Rublev, Dominic Thiem def. Rafael Nadal
Final prediction: Novak Djokovic def. Dominic Thiem
Follow Sportskeeda to get the latest French Open 2020 Results and SchedulePublished 25 Sep 2020, 01:18 IST