Draw analysis: Obstacles aplenty await Serena at the US Open

— -- Winning a Grand Slam tennis tournament requires years of practice and preparation, but the unruly, random path to victory is framed in a matter of mere minutes.

Welcome to the US Open draw, circa 2016 -- our road map for the fortnight that begins Monday.

Hoping to avoid that hot qualifier right out of the box? Perhaps dodge the dangerous floater in the third round? Maybe lock in a few comfortable opponents you've never lost to? The die is cast as quickly as the numbered chip comes out of the lidless silver trophy.

Friday at the National Tennis Center, all 256 slots for the men's and women's singles draws were revealed with tournament referee Brian Earley serving as master of ceremonies. The highlights:

Best first-round matches

Men: No. 16 seed Feliciano Lopez versus Borna Coric. This one nicely frames the changing-of-the-guard vibe of this looming event. Lopez, a 34-year-old Spaniard, was a surprise quarterfinalist in New York a year ago. Serbia's Coric, still a teenager, beat Nick Kyrgios and Rafael Nadal in back-to-back matches last week in Cincinnati before retiring (knees) against eventual champion Marin Cilic. Coric, according to his team, should be good to go.

Women: No. 1 Serena Williams versus? Ekaterina Makarova. This one is just pure nastiness for Serena, but it could be the wake-up she needs. After a rough go at the Rio Olympics, there's no chance Serena will take the crafty Russian lightly. It was Makarova who beat Serena four years ago in the fourth round of the Australian Open, and she comes in as the newly minted Rio gold-medal winner with doubles partner Elena Vesnina. Serena, who has the pressure of some serious history in her sights, has beaten Makarova in straight sets in their two previous US Open encounters, in 2012 and 2014.

Toughest quarter of the draw

Men: Top quarter, top half. At first glance, it might appear that No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic could have a dicey first-round match, but 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist Jerzy Janowicz of Poland is only 1-4 in his US Open career. More concerning is the rest of that bracket, which is laced with heavy hitters -- not the best thing for an ailing left wrist. Djokovic could see ace machine John Isner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Kevin Anderson, not to mention a projected quarterfinals meeting with No. 7 seed Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion.

Women: Top quarter, bottom half. While Serena and Simona Halep are projected to meet in the quarterfinals of the top quarter, the third quarter is loaded with young power. In theory, American Madison Keys, 21, would see French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, 22, in the quarters. But there are also these players to consider: Coco Vandeweghe, who got to the fourth round at Wimbledon, and Rio singles gold medalist Monica Puig.

Favorites most at risk

Men: No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss is a two-time Grand Slam champion, but he has his hands full with a first-round match against wily Fernando Verdasco, who was a US Open quarterfinalist in 2009-10. Believe it or not, Verdasco has won three of their five career matches. That includes a victory earlier this year on the grass at Queen's Club -- and the only hard-court meeting, four years ago in Acapulco. If that's not bad enough, Wawrinka could face ascendant Aussie Kyrgios in a fourth-round match -- if he makes it that far.

Women: A year ago, No. 7 seed Roberta Vinci was the surprise finalist in New York, stunning Serena in the semifinals. Even if she gets past the sometimes-dangerous Anna-Lena Friedsam in her first-round match, American Christina McHale and Sabine Lisicki could await in the second and third rounds. Lisicki, who pounds the ball, made it to the fourth round a year ago.

Favorites best positioned to flourish

Men: No. 2 seed Andy Murray. In some minds, he's the favorite here, and now he has a relatively easy route to the quarterfinals. The 29-year-old Scot has the momentum, coming off his victories at Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics and a finals appearance in Cincinnati. His first-round match is against Lukas Rosol, who is 1-5 at the US Open. Next up could be Juan Monaco in the second, No. 30 Gilles Simon in the third and Lopez in the fourth. No. 6 Kei Nishikori -- a finalist here two years ago -- would be the projected quarterfinal opponent.

Women: No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber. She has a reasonably comfortable draw that begins with Polona Hercog. Alize Cornet might be waiting in the second, with No. 27 Sara Errani in the third. In the fourth it could be No. 14 Petra Kvitova, who has won two Grand Slam singles titles but reached the quarters in New York only once. Vinci is slated to meet Kerber in the quarters.

Cinderella candidates

Men: Lucas Pouille. In his last major, the No. 24 seed went all the way to Wimbledon's quarterfinals. The 22-year-old Frenchman has a decent draw and could face Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round. Nadal, whose physical condition after the rousing Rio Olympics might have been compromised, theoretically would provide fourth-round opposition.

Women: Karolina Pliskova She's the No. 10 seed, so we're taking some liberties here. But based on her track record in Slams -- in 17 majors, she has never advanced past the third round -- we believe she's capable of losing a glass slipper. While Pliskova's only 2-3 in previous US Open action, the Czech is having another terrific year. Her draw is doable; she's projected to face No. 6 Venus Williams in the quarterfinals. Pliskova leads all women with 407 aces, 147 more than second-place Serena Williams.