The French Open, which starts here tomorrow, has always provided Andy Murray with his stiffest Grand Slam test and in yesterday's draw the Briton was handed arguably the toughest first-round task of all 32 seeds.
The 23-year-old Scot will play Richard Gasquet, who was regarded until recently as one of the game's outstanding talents but has slipped down the world rankings after a year in which he was dogged by a drugs controversy.
Murray is the world No 4 and Gasquet the No 68, but the Frenchman will have the support of his home crowd and has recently given hope that he might rediscover the form that once took him to No 7 in the world. He has been playing this week in Nice, where he will meet Fernando Verdasco in today's final.
"He's definitely one of the best players that's not seeded," Murray said yesterday. "He's a very, very good player. Obviously he had some problems last year, but he's playing very well again.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere and it's going to be a fun match to play in. For a long time he's been [France's] favourite to win a Grand Slam because he was unbelievably good when he was playing the juniors. Then he obviously had some great wins when he first came on the tour, so it's going to be a very difficult match."
Gasquet, who is 11 months older than Murray, appeared on the cover of a French tennis magazine at the age of nine, made his Grand Slam debut at 15 and enjoyed a stunning victory over Roger Federer at Monte Carlo when he was 18.
However, he has often looked uncomfortable in the spotlight and his record in Grand Slam tournaments is mediocre for a player with such talent. In six visits to Roland Garros he has won only four matches and never gone beyond the third round.
The former French No 1's career took a turn for the worse in March last year, when he failed a drugs test in Miami. He said the cocaine found in his system must have come from kissing a woman he had met the previous evening in a nightclub.
Ten weeks later an independent tribunal decided that he had committed a doping offence but accepted his explanation and ruled that he should be freed to compete again immediately. However, the International Tennis Federation, which had been seeking a mandatory two-year ban, contested the decision. The Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected the appeal five months later.
Gasquet had already slipped to No 25 before the controversy and by the start of this month had fallen to 86. He reached the final of a tour event in Sydney in January but had struggled until winning a Challenger tournament in Bordeaux this month. He has often done well on clay, having reached three clay-court finals, including a Masters Series event in Hamburg. He has already played 19 matches on clay this year compared with Murray's six. Murray, who reached the quarter-finals here last year in his best French Open performance, has met Gasquet three times. He lost the first two matches but won the most recent, when he came back from two sets down at Wimbledon two years ago.
The Frenchman is not the only difficult opponent on Murray's potential path. Juan Ignacio Chela, his possible second-round opponent, is at his best on clay, while Marcos Baghdatis, whom the Scot is seeded to meet in the third round, has beaten him in both their previous meetings. John Isner or Tomas Berdych could await in the fourth round before a quarter-final against the French No 1, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Murray is seeded to meet Roger Federer, the defending champion, in the semis. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the top seeds in the other half of the draw.
Murray said he had not set himself a particular target: "I'm going to try my best to win the tournament. There was a big surprise last year with [Robin] Soderling reaching the final. There have been a lot of surprise winners at the French Open in the past, so that can happen. But I need to win my first match first if I'm going to have a chance of doing that, and I've got a very, very tough opponent."Reuse content