Monaco: Novak Djokovic's bid to become French Open champion starts at the Monte Carlo Masters, where he will attempt to end Rafael Nadal's long dominance and show the Spaniard that he has nowhere left to hide — not even on clay.
Nadal has won at Monte Carlo since 2005, and gone on to win the French Open every year except 2009. But the six-time French Open champion has lost in seven straight finals to Djokovic, including the last three Grand Slam finals. Djokovic also handed Nadal his only two losses on clay last year, in the Madrid and Rome Masters.
Victory in Monte Carlo would be even sweeter for Djokovic, given that Nadal has won 37 consecutive matches there and holds a 39-1 record.
"Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay. He's the 'King of Clay', the best player ever to play on this surface, and one of the best tennis players ever," Djokovic said on Sunday. "Winning in back-to-back finals against Rafa gives me a lot of confidence coming into the season now."
The second-ranked Nadal is without a title since winning last year's French Open. He was also without a title in 2011 heading into Monte Carlo, then went on to win here and the French Open.
Unlike the oppressive atmosphere of jam-packed Roland Garros in bustling western Paris, the Monte Carlo Country Club's peaceful clay-courts overlooking the glittering Mediterranean sea are like a second home for Nadal. It's where it all started for him as a 16-year-old, when an astonishing victory over former French Open champion Albert Costa propelled him into the spotlight. Nine years later, he is the star everyone wants to beat.
"Nadal probably plays his best tennis in Monte Carlo, outside of Paris," Djokovic said. "I believe the conditions here are slower compared to Madrid, which is altitude, (and to) Rome, Paris. Maybe that works in his favour more."
Not even 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer could topple him here. At the peak of his form, the Swiss star still found no answer, losing to Nadal in the final from 2006-08. Others, like Fernando Verdasco, were simply routed — the Spaniard managing to take just one game off Nadal in the 2010 final.
But the top-ranked Djokovic, who lost to Nadal in the 2009 Monte Carlo final, is ready to end the Spaniard's run, and to continue his crushing recent dominance over the 10-time Grand Slam champion. Overall, Nadal leads their series 16-14 but has not beaten Djokovic since a group-stage match at the 2010 ATP Finals in London.
"The momentum turned, but the (previous) years it was always Nadal and Federer coming on top," Djokovic said. "This is always happens at this level, the momentum changes. We'll see how that is going to play out in the future."
With six weeks to go until the French Open, the 24-year-old Serb knows he can strike a huge blow to Nadal's confidence and keep his relentless momentum going by winning at Monte Carlo.
Djokovic opens his campaign in the second round against either Andreas Seppi or a qualifier, while Nadal faces Radek Stepanek or Jarkko Nieminen.
Britain's Andy Murray, who took a set off Nadal in an exciting semi-final last year, is seeded third and plays Serb Viktor Troicki in Round Two. Murray feels confident heading into the clay season, having also reached the semi-finals at the Rome Masters and the French Open.
"Last year, throughout pretty much all the clay-court season, I felt way better (than previous years). It wasn't just the French Open. It started here, I had a very good run," Murray said. "It was character building in a way, because I started playing well again after struggling in Miami, and I had my problem in my elbow and couldn't play for a week."
Murray could meet Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, but is wary of facing Troicki. Murray beat the Serb in five sets to win their fourth-round match at the French Open last year.
"It was one of my toughest matches last year," Murray said. "I was trailing two sets to love, and it was starting to get a little bit dark. I managed to get myself back into the match."
Federer is not playing in the tournament.
In first-round play on Sunday, ninth-seeded Gilles Simon of France beat Benjamin Balleret of Monaco, 6-3, 6-2, while Troicki and Croatia's Ivan Dodig also advanced. Troicki beat Monaco's Jean-Rene Lisnard 6-3, 6-1, while Dodig broke countryman Ivan Ljubicic's serve six times en route to a 6-0, 6-3 win. It was the last match of the 33-year-old Ljubicic's career.