For Rafael Nadal, the venue couldn't be more familiar: The crisp French air, the clay beneath his toes, the burnt orange courts of Stade Roland Garros. He should feel comfortable in this position.
And yet, the situation is new for the former World No. 1. Despite seven titles at this very tournament—including the last three—Nadal comes in as the fourth-ranked player in the world. He's missed the past two Grand Slam events, along with the 2012 Olympics, with a knee injury, and isn't the consensus favorite to win.
Given his strong recent track record, he's still a strong bet to go all the way. But this is a different field than he's accustomed to in his post-injury tuneups. This field has Novak Djokovic lurking in the weeds. This field is elite.
Nadal's expectation binary is slightly shifted from past French Open's. He's granted a grace period because of the injury; his 2013 mantra is different than Ricky Bobby's. As long as he makes the semifinals, his return to Grand Slam action can't be deemed a total, complete bust.
That being said, here are three obstacles who could ensure that Rafa's return is a total, complete bust—the three men standing between him and a semifinal berth.
(13) Kei Nishikori
Where They'd Meet: Fourth Round
Nishikori ain't won nothing yet, but he's violently knocking on the door.
Last year the feisty, 23-year-old Japanese phenom made the third round at Wimbledon and quarterfinals at the Australian Open—still his best major finish to date.
Lately, though, Nishikori has threatened to start doing bigger, better things. He made the quarterfinals of the recent Madrid Open, dropping to wild-card entrant Pablo Andujar. And while it is worth saying that Nadal went on to win that tournament, it is also worth mentioning who Nishikori beat in the third round.
Namely, Roger Federer.
How Rafael Nadal reacts to his first post-surgery major remains to be seen. The mental block is often stronger than the physical one; Tiger Woods leads the FedEx Cup by a landslide, but still hasn't won a major since his fallout.
If Nadal lets his mental guard down against a man three weeks removed from beating Roger Federer...well, let's just say stranger things have happened.
(7) Richard Gasquet
Where They'd Meet: Quarterfinals
Gasquet is 0-10 in his career against Rafa, which should bode well in potential quarterfinal play. But the 26-year-old Frenchman is still the most talented player in Nadal's pre-semi path, and thus merits inclusion on this list.
He's also been in peak form as of late. Gasquet's won two titles in 2013 and is 5-0 since the calendar turned. He withdrew from a number of pre-French tournaments as a precaution for this event; he wants to be in top physical condition and make his best Major run to date.
That hot streak is enough to get in Rafa's post-injury head.
(4) Rafael Nadal
Hear me out. This is Rafa's first major tournament since injuring himself. He's expected to make the semifinal—especially with Andy Murray out of the field. He's supposed to reclaim his spot among the top four—at the very least—players in tennis. That quarter has not been broken in quite some time; he needs to prove he's still a part of it.
Throw in the added pressure of Roland Garros, a tournament he's historically dominated like no other. He can't just lose here and chalk it up to a bad match. If he loses here there's officially something wrong with him. Not really, necessarily, but that's how the story will be written. And don't believe a word any of these guys say: They pay attention to the stories that get written.
That's a significant weight bearing down on Nadal's shoulders, and while he's great, he isn't exactly Atlas. He's a pro, and he's dealt with pressure before, but this is pressure of a different type. This is future-oriented pressure about whether he'll ever regain his form—the kind of thing that's prevented Tiger from winning a Major post-knee surgery.
Do I think it's likely that Nadal psyches himself out of this tournament? No, not really. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an obstacle...and a big one at that.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!