ROME, Apr 25 – Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic launch their latest attempts to derail Rafael Nadal's non-stop, claycourt express at the Rome Masters which gets under way at the Foro Italico on Sunday.Nadal won three successive titles here until last year when he suffered a shock second round loss to Spanish compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero.
With Federer losing to Radek Stepanek in the quarter-finals, Djokovic seized his opportunity to take the title beating Stanislas Wawrinka in the final.
However, if Federer and Djokovic, the world numbers two and three respectively, had been hoping Nadal’s early exit in 2008 was to signal a rapid decline, they were in for a devastating wake-up call.
Nadal went on to claim a fourth French Open, then took Federer’s Wimbledon title and succeeded Djokovic as Australian Open winner in January.
He’s the world number one and also added, for good measure, a fifth successive Monte Carlo Masters claycourt title last week, beating Djokovic in the final although the Serbian took heart from extending Nadal to three sets.
"It’s the story of believing in yourself. I think that’s the key to playing him," said Djokovic.
"You just have to be focused every single point because you have a player on the other side of the net who doesn’t give you any points. He really doesn’t care about the result. He just wants to give his best every single point.
"That’s why he’s very unique and that’s why he’s the best. So you have to be physically really fit in the first place, because long rallies and long points are waiting for you. That’s no secret."
Federer lasted just two matches in Monte Carlo, a serious setback for a man who had reached the final in the previous three years.
The Swiss star heads to Italy in a slump and still waiting to celebrate his first title of 2009, but he believes his brief stay on the French Riviera will help him in Rome.
"I haven’t served my best throughout the season, so I have to make sure I get my serve back going well for me because I just don’t hit the spots when I really want to," said Federer.
The Rome Masters has been hit by a number of withdrawals with Andy Roddick, Gael Monfils, David Nalbandian and Mario Ancic all pulling out.
Nalbandian suffered a hip injury during his third round victory at Barcelona over Nicolas Almagro on Thursday while Monfils has been suffering from knee problems and is unlikely to play much tennis before Roland Garros.
Ancic is still suffering from the effects of the glandular fever that struck him down last season while Roddick is on honeymoon with bride Brooklyn Decker.
He is expected to play at the Madrid Masters the week after Rome.