Djokovic and Nadal could meet in French Open semifinals
PARIS (AP) Unfortunately for Rafael Nadal, the French Open draw didn't make things easy.
Fortunately, though, he is back in top form as he starts his quest for a 10th title at Roland Garros.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion was drawn in the same half as defending champion Novak Djokovic, Milos Raonic and up-and-coming Dominic Thiem on Friday.
In addition, the fourth-seeded Nadal will also need to deal with the talented and unpredictable Benoit Paire in the first round.
''I know I need to be ready since the beginning, because I have a tough opponent in the first round,'' Nadal said. ''So I am focused on trying to work the right way.''
The 30-year-old Nadal, who retired last year before his third round match with a wrist injury, has a 72-2 record at the clay-court major and is the only player with nine trophies from one Grand Slam tournament.
This season, he has been the dominant player on clay, winning 17 straight matches on his favorite surface and three consecutive titles before Thiem halted his run in Rome last week.
In Paris, he could face Djokovic or Thiem in the semifinals.
''I had a lot of success on clay, winning three events out of four that I played,'' Nadal said when asked about his fitness. ''That's great for me, no? It makes me happy to feel myself competitive and play well in every event that I played. I am very happy the way that I arrived here. Now I have to play well here. That's all.''
Djokovic can't boast the same confidence as his Spanish rival after struggling with form and confidence recently.
''Rafa, next to Roger (Federer), has been the best player this year in terms of results,'' Djokovic said. ''Their level of tennis is quite fantastic. Rafa is playing on his favorite surface and playing with confidence, much better than last year. I definitely see him as probably the number one favorite for this title.''
Federer, who won the Australian Open in January, is skipping Roland Garros, focusing instead on his preparations for the grass and hard court events.
So much has changed for Djokovic since he completed a career Grand Slam at the French Open last year by beating Andy Murray in the final.
The Serb's form nosedived after his triumph on the Parisian red clay as he lost in the third round at Wimbledon for his earliest defeat in a Grand Slam in seven years. He was then beaten in the first round at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, reached the final of the U.S. Open, and lost early again at the Australian Open.
Djokovic, who lost his No. 1 ranking to Murray last year, has won only one of his last 11 tournaments.
''It's an amazing feeling to be back and to look at this trophy. It brings back memories from last year,'' Djokovic said at the draw ceremony. ''Winning here was one of the most special feelings on the court, one of the highlights of my career.''
Djokovic, who hopes new coach Andre Agassi will help him turn his luck around over the next fortnight, will start the defense of his title against 76th-ranked Marcel Granollers.
The top-ranked Murray, who will open against Andrey Kuznetsov, was drawn in the same half as third-seeded and 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka, who he could meet in the semifinals. Before that, he faces a potential difficult match-up against Juan Martin del Potro in the third round if the Argentine player recovers in time from shoulder and back problems.
In the absence of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the women's draw is looking wide open this year. An intriguing first round match-up will put defending champion Garbine Muguruza against 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, while top-ranked Angelique Kerber will take on 40th-ranked Ekaterina Makarova.
Among the other favorites, third-seeded Simona Halep will be up against Jana Cepelova in the first round if her right ankle injury does not prevent her from playing.
The tournament will also see two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova making her comeback less than six months after she was stabbed during an attack at home in the Czech Republic.
''Not many people believe that I can play tennis again. So I'm happy that I can play. I actually already won my biggest fight,'' Kvitova said. ''I'm happy that I like challenges. That was one of the biggest, of course. So I stayed in life and I have all my fingers, I can play tennis and I can be here and be in the draw.''
Williams is not playing because she is pregnant, while Sharapova's ranking wasn't high enough to gain direct entry into the tournament after a 15-month doping suspension. Tournament organizers did not grant her a wild card.
Play begins on Sunday at Roland Garros.
Associated Press writer Daniella Matar contributed to this report.