MONACO (Reuters) - In-form Novak Djokovic is not even competing at this week's Monte Carlo Masters yet Rafael Nadal can still sense the Serb lurking in the shadows as the claycourt season begins in stifling sunshine.
For a man who won every clay tournament he entered last year and who at Monte Carlo is bidding to be the first player in the open era to win the same event seven times in a row, the Spanish world number one was remarkably subdued on Monday.
Two straight final defeats to Djokovic on the hard courts at Indian Wells and Miami have left their mark despite the switch to clay and the Serb's absence from Monte Carlo to rest a knee injury.
"I feel very beatable when I go on court. The last six years on clay, I could never have imagined what I did. It's almost impossible to repeat a season like last year," Nadal told reporters at the Country Club, perched above the shimmering sea.
"It's almost a year since I've played on clay. As usual, I try to watch videos (of myself) to remember what I have to do. Last year I started to play and felt fantastic from the beginning. Every year is different. You need matches."
World number two Djokovic, whose injury is expected to clear up in the next few days, has won 24 straight matches in 2011 and nine-times Grand Slam champion Nadal reckons that form can be transferred onto clay despite the Serb skipping this week.
"I'm sure on clay he's going to be good," Nadal said, muscles bulging out of his shirt sleeves.
"This year Novak has a lot of advantages. He is in a perfect situation to be number one. I'm sure he'll be number one next month. He started the season playing unbelievably. In my opinion he didn't even play his top level in Indian Wells and Miami."
Nadal, who fought to keep the glamorous but small scale Monte Carlo tournament a Masters event, has such an attachment to Monaco that he had a special audience with Prince Albert on Sunday.
"I played my best tennis ever on clay I think here last year," added Nadal, due to play his first match on Wednesday. "This place is one of my favourites in the world."
World number three Roger Federer was keen to point out he is no mug on clay as the build up to next's month's French Open begins.
"I feel very strong on the surface. It's the surface I grew up on. Everybody knows that by now. I can make a huge step forward," the Swiss said.
If Federer's recent form is patchy, Andy Murray's has been downright dreadful since his Australian Open final defeat to Djokovic and the Briton is no nearer to finding a new coach.
"I'm not any closer. I'm trying to concentrate on playing," the world number four said.
"I feel better this year, I just haven't been playing well in the matches. I'm sure this week there will be a few upsets."
(Editing by Brian Homewood)