|Rafael Nadal arrives for a training session two days before the start of the French Open at Roland Garros stadium in Paris. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)
PARIS -- Five-time champion Rafael Nadal and scorching hot Novak Djokovic could each have difficult early tests at this year's French Open.
Nadal, who returned to the winner's circle at Roland Garros last year after an early exit in 2009 halted his four-year reign, will open with big-serving American John Isner and could have a quarterfinal matchup with two-time runner-up Robin Soderling in a rematch of last year's final.
Djokovic, who has yet to lose this year, will take on Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker in the first round, but could meet former U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the third round.
Nadal and Djokovic are the top two seeds in the men's draw, with 2009 champ Roger Federer third and Scotland's Andy Murray the fourth seed.
Should Nadal and Djokovic navigate through the draw and each reach the final, it would mark the fifth meeting of the year for the top two players in the men's game. Djokovic, who captured the year's first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, has won each of the first four on his way to an incredible 37-0 start to the year. The Serbian star topped the super Spaniard in finals at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome -- the last two on Nadal's beloved clay.
Djokovic could supplant Nadal as the world's top-ranked player by winning the title in a little over two weeks, while a run to the final would give him the best start to a calendar year. The six wins would make Djokovic 43-0, eclipsing the 42-0 start by John McEnroe in 1984. McEnroe's streak ended with a loss to Ivan Lendl in that year's French Open finale.
Djokovic's quarter of the draw also features sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, 12th-seeded Russian Mikhail Youzhny and 13th-seeded Richard Gasquet of France, as well as Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci. Gasquet beat Federer recently in Rome, while Bellucci nearly beat Djokovic in the semifinals at Madrid, winning the first set before becoming one of the many victims in this sensational start.
The high-flying Djokovic has never reached a Roland Garros final. He appeared in the quarters last year, losing to Austria's Jurgen Melzer, and lost to Nadal in the semifinals in both 2007 and 2008. Nadal also beat him in the 2006 quarterfinals.
Nadal's quarter of the draw features a potential third-round match against veteran Nikolay Davydenko. The dangerous Russian has been a French Open semifinalist twice and beat Nadal in the season-opening event in Qatar, but has struggled through the season with numerous first- or second-round losses, although he did capture the Munich crown on clay earlier this month.
Spaniard Fernando Verdasco could be a fourth-round foe for Nadal, while American Mardy Fish is also in that quarter of the draw. Fish, the 10th seed and highest-ranked American player, will face Brazil's Ricardo Mello in the first round and could meet Frenchman Gilles Simon in round three before a possible fourth-round matchup with Soderling. The fifth-seeded Swede lost to Federer in the 2009 final before last year's loss to Nadal. Soderling ended Nadal's French Open dominance in the fourth round two years ago.
Federer, who failed to reach a final in any of his three clay-court tuneups, will likely have his hands full in the first round with tough Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, while the 16-time Grand Slam champ could face fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka or Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round. Seventh-seeded Spaniard David Ferrer is a potential quarterfinal opponent for Federer. Ferrer has had a solid 2011 season with a pair of titles and losses to Nadal in finals at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Ninth-seeded Frenchman Gael Monfils is also in that quarter of the draw.
Murray could have the easiest road of the top four seeds, at least early, as he will play qualifiers in the first two rounds. Melzer, who made a surprising run to last year's semifinals, is seeded eighth this year and is the next highest-seeded player in Murray's quarter of the draw. Melzer will also open with a qualifier. There are seven qualifiers in that quarter of the draw.
Play starts on the famed red clay Sunday and concludes on Sunday, June 5.