Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are eyeing a confidence-boosting victory at the season-opening Qatar Open - but much of the talk Monday was swirling around Novak Djokovic who is not here but is already showing signs of the dominance that made him such a force in 2011.
The No. 1-ranked Djokovic wrapped up his first title in Abu Dhabi on Saturday and afterward stated that he was feeling better than he did at this time last season. That does not bode well for the second-ranked Nadal and third-ranked Federer who were often on the losing end as the 24-year-old Serb won three Grand Slams on his way to amassing a record of 70 wins and six losses.
Nadal, who lost to Djokovic in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon finals in 2011, said players expect the Serb to dominate again this season.
"Everybody thinks that Djokovic will be difficult to beat, no?" Nadal said. "Not just myself."
The 25-year-old Spaniard, who is the tournament's top seed, has a first-round match Tuesday against Philipp Kohlschreiber while Federer faces a tricky encounter against Nikolay Davydenko of Russia whom he beat in the final last year. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France plays Malek Jaziri of Tunisia while Gael Monfils faces Rui Machado of Portugal.
Nadal suggested he had come to terms with the prospect of being a distant second to Djokovic - at least in the near term.
"You know in the sport ... you cannot be every time in the top," Nadal said. "I think I played fantastic for seven, eight months in the 2011 season.
"I lost against Djokovic in all the finals, but I almost only lost against him. So that's a really positive thing, play almost every final in all the difficult and important tournaments."
Looking ahead, Nadal wouldn't say whether he can reverse the trend that saw him fall to Djokovic in six finals in 2011. He has recently said that he felt his tennis in 2011 was sometimes too predicable and has started using a heavier racket to increase his power.
But he also has had his preparations for this season curtailed by a left shoulder injury that he says has healed.
"The only thing I know is I have to practice to improve my tennis. For the rest of my career, I don't know if that's gonna be enough to beat him (Djokovic) or to lose to him 100 more times," Nadal said.
"I don't even know, but I cannot predict that," he said. "What I can predict is I gonna work hard to try to be enough competitive to play with good chances against everybody, not only against him because the first thing, you have to be in the finals. That's a very difficult thing to do, not only win that once."
Federer, too, couldn't avoid questions about Djokovic, who beat the Swiss in the Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament last week. He lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open and U.S. Open but exacted some revenge in ending Djokovic's 43-match winning streak at the French Open semifinals.
"He was definitely the most consistent player of this last year, and he looks like he's in good shape again for this upcoming season," Federer said.
"So it's obviously someone who is going to be followed very closely not just by the media but also by the players," he said. "I think we're also all feeling pretty well, as well, so it's going to be interesting for all of us to see who's going to have the best start to the season."
Federer said his strong finish last season - a 17-match winning streak that culminated in a record sixth title at the year-end championships in London - has given him hope that he can do well this year.
"You can definitely take confidence from the end of the year and sort of just carry it over because you're in a good mindset," Federer said. "You know, you just believe that you're doing the right things on the court. You're not second guessing yourself. From that standpoint, confidence is ... it's a huge part of our, you know, life sometimes as a tennis player."
As for the chances of regaining the top ranking or winning another major this season, the 16-time Grand Slam champion said it was too early to make bold predictions. He was just taking things one tournament at a time.
"You have to go step by step, and right now focus is on Doha, my first round. It's a tough one against Davydenko," Federer said.
"Then I do hope I can move on and defend my title here and then go to sort of Australia and make my move over there," he said. "Then I have a lot coming up in February, as well, for me. So it's going to be an interesting next two months for me, because I will be playing a lot of tennis. So I hope that I will hold up well physically."
Federer also said he hadn't made any major changes to his game in the offseason, partly because he has been playing well.
"Well, I think the offseason has been too short to take any major, you know, change, anything crazy," he said. "I mean, I have had what, 20 days of practice? I don't think anybody can reinvent themselves within three weeks. Given three months, things can change a bit."
Early in the first round Monday, there were no upsets as the seeded players all advanced.
Fifth-seeded Viktor Troicki of Serbia, beat Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic 6-4, 7-6 (4) while sixth-seeded Alex Bogomolov Jr. of Russia came from a set down to beat Filippo Volandri of Italy 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.
Eighth-seeded Andreas Seppi of Italy beat Lukasz Kubot of Poland, 6-2, 6-3.