It had to happen, right? When Rafael Nadal went into this year’s French Open draw seeded sixth, we wondered what life would be like if the nine-time champ had to meet the No. 1 seed, Novak Djokovic, in the quarterfinals. Now we may find out. The 2014 finalists have fallen into the same quarter in 2015, making this the most lopsided men’s draw in recent memory.

If that isn’t great news for Rafa and Nole, it’s a major opportunity for those players on the opposite side of the brackets. Call it the “Phew!” half: Many of the 64 guys over there should feel like they have a chance to reach their first French Open final. That means that every match in the bottom half will carry a little bit of extra weight and significance.

Here’s a look at how the two halves—the heavy and the light—might play out over the next two weeks in Paris. (View the entire draw here.)

You might think that having to face Nadal in the quarters is the last thing Djokovic wanted. And of course, if he had to choose, he would have loved to get through Roland Garros without having to play the man who has eliminated him from the tournament six times. But there is one small upside. In past years, Rafa has used these two weeks on the terre battue to build momentum, to the point where he made himself appear unstoppable by the time he played Djokovic. In 2012 and 2014, Nadal peaked with blowout semifinal wins, and went on to beat the Serb in four sets in the final. This time around, Nadal will have two fewer rounds, and four fewer days, to become the King of Clay again.

Is there any chance that either Rafa or Nole won’t reach their quarterfinal date? Djokovic starts against Jarkko Nieminen, and the other three seeds in his half are Bernard Tomic, Richard Gasquet, and Kevin Anderson—a manageable section. Rafa will open against French wild card Quentin Halys, and the three seeds on his side are Adrian Mannarino, Tommy Robredo, and Grigor Dimitrov. Of those, only Dimitrov, who has thrown a scare or two into Nadal in the past, poses a threat on paper.

First-round matches to watch: Dimitrov vs. Jack Sock; Borna Coric vs. Sam Querrey

Sleeper: Alexandr Dolgopolov. He plays Nicolas Almagro first, and then, most likely, Nadal. Yes, Dolgo is a flake, and yes, he just handed Ernests Gulbis his second win of the season; but if Rafa is still off by the time they play, he has the game to push him.

Advertising

Not So Lonely at the Top (Of the Draw)

Not So Lonely at the Top (Of the Draw)

The first question to ask here is: Does Andy Murray still have the clay-mentum that brought him titles in Munich and Madrid? He withdrew early in Rome and will have to fight his way through slower conditions in France than the ones he faced in Spain. But Murray is a two-time French Open semifinalist, and with a win over Nadal on clay this spring, he should feel for the first time that he can go farther.

As for his draw, the bold-faced names on his side are Nick Kyrgios and John Isner. That sounds ominous, but Murray knows how to handle big servers; he tied Kyrgios in knots at the Australian Open in January, and is 4-0 against Isner. The roadblock, if he makes it there, could come in the quarters.

There Murray is scheduled to face David Ferrer. The Spaniard is 4-0 vs the Scot on clay, and beat him in the same round at Roland Garros in 2012. Ferrer has also had a good year, and has been given an enviable draw—the three seeds in his half are Leonardo Mayer, Viktor Troicki, and the struggling Marin Cilic.

First-round match to settle in for: Isner vs. Andreas Seppi

Now we reach the land of opportunity: Nobody in this section or the bottom section has to worry about facing Djokovic or Nadal until the final. We’ll see what, if any, effect that has on their psyches. I’m thinking that it could lead to some upsets.

On paper, Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori are the two biggest beneficiaries of the draw. Both have had good seasons, both should be contenders for the title here, but both have withered this spring against the Big 4. Now they’re the co-favorites to make the semis.

Of the two, Nishikori has the slightly bumpier road. He opens against a Frenchman, Paul-Henri Mathieu, never a straightforward task at Roland Garros, and two Spanish threats, Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco, lurk in his half. As for Berdych, the seed closest to him is Fabio Fognini, who pushed him to a third-set tiebreaker in Rome. More dangerous, though, is the man he could meet in the round of 16, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Jo, as we know, loves Roland Garros, but Berdych beat him in Madrid two weeks ago in straight sets.

Possible second-round match to watch: Nishikori vs. Thomaz Bellucci. The Brazilian veteran, who took a set from Djokovic in Rome and is currently in the semifinals in Geneva, has been hitting a big ball of late.

Advertising

Not So Lonely at the Top (Of the Draw)

Not So Lonely at the Top (Of the Draw)

Roger Federer, at first glance, has new life. The only two players who would definitely be favored to beat him, Djokovic and Nadal, are far away, and he’s guaranteed only to have to see one of them. On second glance, though, he’s not guaranteed of anything. Two years ago, Rafa and Nole faced off in the semifinals, but it was Ferrer who was awaiting the winner two days later; Federer had gone out in the quarterfinals to Tsonga.

It’s possible that something similar could happen again. The second seed in Federer’s half is Gael Monfils. Federer is 8-4 in their career head to head and 3-0 against him at Roland Garros, but Monfils has won their last two meetings, on clay, in straight sets, and he pushed him to the brink in their U.S. Open quarterfinal last fall. Of course, La Monf remains La Monf: He has had knee trouble, and he could have a tough third-rounder with dirt-baller Pablo Cuevas. But Monfils always gets up for the French.

The top seed on the other side is Stan Wawrinka, who remains as unpredictable as ever. After a mostly dismal spring, he belted his way past Nadal last week in Rome, before losing to Federico Delbonis in Geneva. The upside is that Wawrinka likes clay and has reached at least the round of 16 at Roland Garros four times. The downside is that he lost in the first round last year, to the man he could play in the third round this year, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

Also here: Ernests Gulbis. Was he really a semifinalist in 2014? He’s 2-12 in 2015.

Sleepers: Dominic Thiem and Gilles Simon. The 21-year-old Austrian is into the semis in Nice, and his game has started to round back into form. The Frenchman has been placed, happily, near two vulnerable seeds, Gulbis and Wawrinka.

Player to Watch, If Only Briefly: Frances Tiafoe. The highly-toued U.S. teen makes his Roland Garros debut against Martin Klizan

Not So Lonely at the Top (Of the Draw)

Not So Lonely at the Top (Of the Draw)

Advertising

For more 2015 French Open coverage, go to our tournament page: