Novak Djokovic looks to continue his recent dominance over archrival Rafael Nadal at the Monte Carlo Masters, where he beat the Spaniard in the final last year, and boost his confidence heading into the French Open.
Monte Carlo is the first of three Masters tournaments played on clay and is followed by Madrid and Rome in May, leading up to the French Open, which starts May 25.
The French Open remains the only major that six-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic has not won. The Serbian player narrowly lost to Nadal in a dramatic semifinal last year at Roland Garros, where a clumsy error at the net late in the fifth set curtailed his comeback, and then Nadal beat him in their next two meetings.
"Winning this title last year in the final against Nadal was definitely one of the highlights of my career. I really love playing in this tournament," Djokovic, who lives in Monaco part of the year, said Sunday. "My family comes in big numbers during this week so it makes me feel very comfortable, and at home."
The top-ranked Nadal's last win against No. 2-ranked Djokovic was in the U.S. Open final, but since then Nadal has lost three consecutive matches to his great rival in straight sets. Nadal leads him 22-18 on head-to-heads and has 62 career titles compared to 43 for Djokovic.
"We're more or less the same generation. We're still 27 and 26 so we still have lots of time in front of us," said Djokovic, who is the younger player. "It's a huge challenge, there's no question about it ... I do not exclude any other players, but the rivalry I had with him is the biggest one so far."
The three straight defeats hurt even more because Nadal was unable to force a tiebreaker in any of them.
"Sure it always affects (you) but I hope to (be) ready to be back and compete on clay," Nadal said. "In Miami I didn't play my best level in the final. I didn't compete well enough. I wasn't ready yet to play that match and he played great, but I didn't push him."
Last year's Monte Carlo final was dominated by Djokovic, too, as he won 6-2, 7-6 (1) to end Nadal's eight-year winning run.
"I'm not going to win 14 (titles in a row). There's a start for everybody and there's an end," Nadal said. "I know that I'm not going to keep winning all the tournaments on clay forever and (there is) going to arrive a day when I'm not going to win one more ... hopefully not yet."
The win here last year gave Djokovic the belief he could beat Nadal at Roland Garros. He almost did, losing 9-7 in an intensely-fought fifth set. Looking back, Djokovic thinks he put himself under too much pressure to win the tournament for the first time.
"Yeah, last year, I put a lot of energy, mental, physical, emotional, into winning that title. I have a different kind of approach this year," he said. "Last year it was more in my mind. It was more in my thoughts, constantly ... Of course, I want to put all my effort into winning Roland Garros, but when the time comes."
Federer, meanwhile, returns to the Monte Carlo Country Club for the first time since 2011, when he lost to Jurgen Melzer in the quarterfinals.
Federer, who lost three straight finals to Nadal from 2006-08, has 78 career titles but has never won here.
Top-seeded Nadal is in the same half of the draw as third-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka and fourth-seeded Federer, and the Spaniard could meet No. 6 David Ferrer or Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals. Second-seeded Djokovic may face the fifth-seeded Berdych in the quarters.
"I managed to beat Novak last year in Rome," Berdych said. "If the conditions are fast, it's warm ... those are the conditions I prefer. If all the small things click together, there's always (a) chance."
A handful of matches got underway on Sunday, with 17th-seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine facing Latvia's Ernests Gulbis. The top seeds are in action Tuesday or Wednesday.