Federer embarks on clay campaign still happy to bow to Nadal as slow-court king

Despite victory in last year's French Open, World No 1 believes 'tearaway' Spaniard remains the one to beat
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He is the world No 1, holds three of the four Grand Slam titles and is the French Open champion, but when Roger Federer goes to Roland Garros next month he believes the favourite to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires will be a rival who has just won his first tournament for 11 months. Federer has always held Rafael Nadal in the highest respect and believes the Spaniard is rapidly putting his recent difficulties behind him.

"The guy's been on an absolute tearaway on clay for pretty much the last five years," Federer said here as he prepared for his seasonal clay-court debut at this week's Rome Masters. "He's hardly lost any matches on clay and he's only lost one match at the French Open, so I would think he's still the favourite.

"I would love to say I'm the big favourite, but I don't think that's quite right, even though I won the French Open last year. He just hasn't lost to anyone on clay outside of the top five or top 10 players – and he's just proved again in Monaco how tough he is."

The Swiss, who meets Ernests Gulbis here in the Rome Masters this afternoon, knows that his route to last summer's French Open title opened up when Nadal's suspect knees gave way against Robin Soderling in the fourth round. Federer's four previous Roland Garros campaigns had ended in defeat to Nadal, in the semi-finals in 2005 and in the final the next three years in succession.

There was a time when the two rivals seemed to meet every other week, but if they face each other here in the semi-finals next weekend it will be their first confrontation for nearly a year.

Much has changed in their worlds since Federer ended a run of five successive defeats to Nadal – the Spaniard still leads 13-7 in their head-to-head record – by beating him in Madrid last May. Federer has become a father, completed his Grand Slam collection by winning in Paris and passed Pete Sampras's all-time mark of 14 major titles; Nadal has suffered injuries and gone through his longest barren spell for six years.

Federer, however, believed from the start of this year, when Nadal lost to Nikolay Davydenko in the Qatar Open final, that the Spaniard was coming back to his best.

"He definitely should have won Qatar," Federer said. "He was playing unbelievably in the final. It was like he was toying with Davydenko. He had match point, but Davydenko saved it and played incredibly in the third set to win. If Rafa had won, it would have been different for him going into the Australian Open. Then he had to retire in Melbourne through injury.

"I think there was a bit too much negativity around Rafa. It's true that 11 months without a title is a long time, but everyone should have known that, by the time the French Open or the clay-court season came around, he would be there again."

Nevertheless, Federer is optimistic about his own chances and feels less pressure going into this year's clay-court season.

He explained: "The questions I'm being asked are already very different. It doesn't start off with: 'Are you going to win the French Open this year?' It's a bit more relaxing. I also got a lot of confidence from winning the French Open last year. You feel like if you can do it once you can do it twice."

While Nadal has built on a promising spring – he followed semi-final appearances in Indian Wells and Miami by successfully defending his title in Monte Carlo in his first clay-court tournament – Federer has lost to Marcos Baghdatis and Tomas Berdych in the early rounds of his only two appearances since winning the Australian Open. The Swiss pulled out of Dubai with a lung infection and has been biding his time before lacing up his clay-court shoes again.

Nobody has repeatedly peaked at Grand Slam events like Federer, who knows, in particular, the importance of remaining fresh over the 10 weeks between now and the end of Wimbledon. He even found time for a holiday before spending two weeks training in preparation for clay. While Nadal arrived only three days ago, Federer has been practising here for the last week. "At this stage of the year practice is the key as you get ready for clay and the long stretch from Rome on to Wimbledon," Federer said. "It's a long one and I need to be fresh at the end of it at Wimbledon, when I'll hope to be playing in another final."

Nadal is also doing all he can to arrive in the best possible shape at the next two Grand Slam tournaments. The Barcelona Open, where he had won five successive titles, is one of Nadal's favourite events but, mindful of his physical state after playing such a demanding clay-court schedule last summer, the world No 3 pulled out of last week's tournament. Having won in Monte Carlo the weekend before last, he did not start practising again until last Friday.

"I think for my tennis it would have been much better to play in Barcelona because I was playing really well in Monte Carlo," Nadal said. "Barcelona is a very good tournament for me to play and I always feel great there, but I tried to think further ahead than just the next week or next day."

He added: "Right now is an important moment for me, because since the start of 2010 I've felt that I've been playing great, even if I didn't win before Monte Carlo. But I know that when I have physical problems, it's more difficult for me. It's always important to run well, to move well and to practise well. If I can't do these things, it's very difficult to have the chance to win tournaments, especially the important events."

As for the prospect of renewing an old rivalry, Nadal said: "It's too early at the start of the tournament to think about Federer. I think for me and for Roger it would be a pleasure if we played each other in the semi-finals – just because it would be very good news to be in the semi-finals of a very tough tournament like Rome."