Monte Carlo: Rafael Nadal will be bidding to make more clay history when the World No. 1 bids for an unprecedented seventh consecutive title as the Monte Carlo Masters begins on Sunday.
The Spaniard is coming off a pair of Masters 1000 losses in American hardcourt finals at Indian Wells and Miami to Novak Djokovic, who withdrew from the high-profile start of the European dirt season as a precaution to rest a knee injury.
Also out with a similar problem is Swede Robin Soderling, finalist at the last two editions of Roland Garros.
Nadal has continued Spanish domination at the Country Club overlooking the Mediterranean, where he and compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero have claimed eight of the last nine titles, with only Argentine Guillermo Coria in 2004 breaking the Iberian spell.
But Nadal has a huge job ahead as he tries to duplicate computer points accumulated during a 2010 win in the principality followed by Madrid, Rome, the French Open and Wimbledon.
Despite not winning a title since last October in Tokyo, the 24-year-old is confident - if cautious - heading into his favourite and most successful part of the season.
"It's difficult to imagine two years in a row (like that)," he said of his 2010 success. "But I'm seriously happy about how I'm playing, happy about my level."
The first eight seeds get first-round byes, with Nadal, second seed and three-time finalist Roger Federer and wild card Andy Murray among those not going into action until the second round.
"Hopefully I'm going to be playing well this tournament," said Nadal, who has made his spring assignment ever harder by planning a return to his home Barcelona Open after skipping it last year to take a knee injection.
"I'll try my best in Monte Carlo, the first tournament of clay is always important."
Federer flew straight to Monte Carlo after losing a Miami semi-final to Nadal and has been working on the clay after losing clay finals to the Spaniard in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
"It's a big swing coming up now in Europe," said the 2009 French Open winner. "I want to do well and I have the opportunity."
Spain's David Ferrer is seeded fourth, ahead of Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych, Spaniard Fernando Verdasco and Jurgen Melzer of Austria.
French number 10 Gael Monfils will play his first match since February after injury, taking the eighth seeding. Compatriot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who split with his longtime coach, is seeded 12th with France's Richard Gasquet on 13th.
Rafael Nadal (ESP x1)
Roger Federer (SUI x2)
Andy Murray (GBR x3)
David Ferrer (ESP x4)
Tomas Berdych (CZE x5)
Fernando Verdasco (ESP x6)
Jurgen Melzer (AUT x7)
Gael Monfls (FRA x8)
Nicolas Almagro (ESP x9)
Mikhail Youzhny (RUS x10)
Viktor Troicki (SRB x11)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA x12)
Richard Gasquet (FRA x13)
Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR x14)
Marin Cilic (CRO x15)
Gilles Simon (FRA x16)