Paris: It’s not quite mission impossible, but the first shots in the battle to dethrone Rafael Nadal as French Open champion are about to be fired in the upmarket surrounds of the Monte Carlo Country Club.
These skirmishes follow a similar pattern each year.
Nadal will usually win at least three claycourt tour events in the European spring, surviving the odd scare, on his way to another familiar Sunday afternoon of crowning glory on the crushed red brick surface of Roland Garros.
Figures released by the ATP this week illustrate the Spaniard’s dominance on clay, a surface which has yielded 43 of his 62 career titles, including a record eight French Open titles.
At Roland Garros alone, the Spaniard has won 59 out of 60 matches, the only blotch being his injury-hit 2009 fourth-round exit to Robin Soderling.
According to the ATP, the eight-time French Open champion has a .934 winning percentage and 298-21 match record on clay.
Novak Djokovic, who dethroned Nadal as an eight-time defending champion at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2013, is only eighth among all-time leaders with a .774 mark on clay, followed by Roger Federer (.766), David Ferrer (.718) and Tommy Robredo (.693).
Apart from Federer, only two players have beaten Nadal in claycourt finals - Djokovic has done it three times while Argentine journeyman Horacio Zeballos accomplished the feat last February in Vina del Mar where Nadal was making his comeback after seven months out.
More history beckons for Nadal over the next two months with Guillermo Vilas’s all-time record of 46 claycourt titles also within his sights.
Not that the modest Spaniard is getting too far ahead of himself as he bids for a ninth Monte Carlo title starting from Sunday.
“I need to be 100 per cent to make a little bit of difference, to try to be aggressive, to try to move myself very well on clay, and to try to find the best feeling possible as soon as possible,” he said.
His caution is based on the ever-present threat of Djokovic, who took his Monte Carlo title 12 months ago before going agonisingly close to also beating Nadal at the French Open, where he let slip a 4-2 lead in the deciding set of an epic semi-final.
This year, Nadal saw his hopes of a 14th major dashed by Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final while Djokovic swept him to defeat in straight sets at the Miami Masters final last month.
Djokovic goes into the defence of his Monte Carlo title buoyed by his back-to-back Masters in the US, but conflicted over his coaching arrangements.
His titles in Indian Wells and Miami were overseen by longtime coach Marian Vajda while recent coaching addition Boris Becker underwent hip surgery.
“Marian’s not just a coach to me. He’s truly a friend, somebody I can rely on in the tough moments, shared good and bad situations and things in life that I experience,” said Djokovic.
“So he knows me very well. He knows me of course better than Boris, but Boris just started working with us, and we have a great communication. I look forward to seeing Boris in Monte Carlo.”
However, many will query what Becker can bring to the Djokovic game in the European claycourt season.
The legendary German may have collected 49 titles in his playing career but he failed to garner one on clay, while at the French Open, the only major played on clay courts, his best runs were three semi-final appearances.
Federer returns to Monte Carlo for the first time since 2011.
The Swiss, with just one clay title in the last four years, will have Stefan Edberg in his coaching corner for the first time at a European event.
Federer has, to some extent, defied the obituary writers in 2014 with a title in Dubai and a bold runners-up spot to Djokovic at Indian Wells.
“The clay is something I have always enjoyed throughout my career. It’s where I grew up playing on. It’s where I played most of my tennis in my career,” said Federer.