Rafael Nadal might be the king of clay, but his knee seems to be causing him more problems than ever. Roger Federer has been playing better than anyone for most of 2012 up until now, but he hasn’t won a clay title since May 2012. Novak Djokovic? He won in Miami recently and beat Nadal in two Clay finals last season. Advantage Novak.

Monte Carlo always kicks off the clay season, and this, like the Roland Garros and clay courts in general in previous season, belong to Rafa. Nadal has won 37 consecutive matches at the Monte Carlo Country club, taking the last seven titles. Three of those finals were against Roger Federer. One, in 2009, was against Djokovic.

But history aside, Nadal has little to be confident about this time. Djokovic played smartly last year and didn’t even attend the tournament, giving him a much needed rest to go on and dominate later on in the season, beating Rafael Nadal in four more tournament finals. The field was wide open for Nadal to win in Monte Carlo, his only Masters title in 2011.

More worrisome? His injured knee. He was forced to retire against Andy Murray at the Sony Ericsson Semi Final in Miami. He’s had only four days of training after more than two weeks of rest before he begins the 2012 clay season, which will hopefully turn out to be yet another Roland Garros success for Nadal. Maybe he’s playing down his chances, but Nadal actually sounds worried and less confident than ever before.

It’s OK now. I need time to see how it is at the top level, run without thinking about the knee, when I put all my pressure on the knee. It’s the start of the clay-court season for me, and hopefully it will work well. I’s not enough after 15 days off without chances to practice a lot because I couldn’t move my knee. I’m a little bit scared, but seems like today I am able to practice with no problems.

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Nadal couldn’t have asked for a better place to make his return, despite everything. Not just his winning record at the venue, but the reilef he gets from playing on Clay. Not just in terms of ability and superiority over the other players, but because it’s simply healthier for him. Spoiler – More criticism about the way tennis is run today.

The worst surface for the players is the hard. I believe we are wrong in the tournaments to play more and more on hard courts, and less and less on clay and grass. It’s special to come back to a place where I have more success than anyone. The conditions worked for me in the past, I always played my best tennis here, I believe.

Nadal is always the focus on clay, but it’s hard to look past Novak Djokovic. Federer has won more titles than Novak this season, but Djokovic has won four of the last five Grand Slam tournaments, including the 2011 Australian Open. He’s beaten Nadal the last seven times they’ve met, all finals. Two of them were in Madrid and Rome. Straight sets. The last time Djokovic lost on clay was against Federer at the Roland Garros.

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Being the world number one, coming off the win against Andy Murray at the Sony Ericsson Open final in Miami, it’s hard to say Novak Djokovic shouldn’t be the most confident man heading in to the Monte Carlo Masters. Federer? Just slightly less, but Federer is always confident, unless he meets Rafael Nadal on clay.

But finding a way to beat Nadal is something Federer has done twice over the last five months, in London and in Indian Wells. True, those were Hard courts, but since his loss to Nadal at the Australian Open Final, Federer has lost only once in 2012. Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells. He’s been on form this season, playing better than anyone until his surprising early exit in Miami. Rested a bit since then, Federer might be the second biggest favorite to win, considering Nadal’s knee problems.