Ash Barty faces massive tests in her bid to regain the French Open title after being handed a minefield of a draw which could pit her against reigning champion Iga Swiatek in a blockbuster semi-final.
Spare a thought, too, for Australia’s rising men’s star Alexei Popyrin, who was on Thursday handed just about the most forbidding examination in world sport by having to take on 13-time champion Rafael Nadal in the first round.
World No.1 Barty, back at Roland Garros to recover the title after giving her defence a miss in COVID-hit 2020, should safely negotiate her opening round with American left-hander Bernarda Pera, the world No.70, when the main draw kicks off on Sunday.
Likewise, she shouldn’t be troubled in the next round against Poland’s Magda Linette, the world No.48, or French wildcard Chloe Paquet.
From the third round, though, the difficulty ramps up swiftly as she could meet Tunisia’s dangerous Ons Jabeur or her Australian wildcard compatriot Astra Sharma, who beat the African for her maiden title in the Charleston final recently.
Barty’s then likely to meet either teenage star Coco Gauff or Australian Open finalist Jen Brady in the fourth round, tough Ukrainian fifth seed Elina Svitolina in the quarters before a possible last-four showdown with perhaps 2020 Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin or Swiatek.
Barty, who’s had a great European clay-court swing with two titles and one final appearance, beat the Pole at the Madrid Open earlier in the month but the teenager has shown ominously good form since then.
If Barty can make the final, her scheduled opponent would be world No.2 Naomi Osaka, though you may prefer to take your pick instead from Serena Williams, Bianca Andreescu or Aryna Sabalenka in the bottom half of the draw.
Barty has practised well at Roland Garros following her injury scare at the Italian Open when she pulled out during the quarter-final against Gauff with the recurrence of an old racquet arm injury.
Nadal knows the pitfalls he’ll face against the huge-hitting Popyrin, the 21-year-old who’s made bigger strides than any other Australian man this year, having risen over 50 places to No.62 in the world.
The pair met in Madrid recently with Nadal winning in straight sets but admitting how impressed he was by the Sydneysider’s remarkable power.
“If he is able to control little bit the mistakes, then it’s going to be very difficult to beat him, no? He has an amazing serve and amazing shots from everywhere,” Nadal said.
“Maximum respect to him, he has big potential, honestly.”
Popyrin, who’s studied a video of how Robin Soderling famously beat Nadal at Roland Garros in 2009, also warned it would be a very different outcome if he had another chance to tackle the 34-year-old maestro.
“He’ll have a bit of a tougher opponent to play next time,” he told AAP earlier this month.
With the champion absurdly ranked only third, it’s an extraordinary, lopsided-looking men’s draw with the ‘big three’ – Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – all on the same side of the draw.
Federer and Djokovic are scheduled for a quarter-final meeting with one going on to play Nadal in the semis.
Australian men’s No.1 Alex de Minaur, who’s seeded 21st, will meet Stefano Travaglia in the opening round, while No.2 John Millman has a tough date with another Italian Gianluca Mager, who beat Popyrin in the Serbian Open recently.