Rome – Rafael Nadal will continue his Roland Garros preparations with a final major tune-up at the Rome Masters, an event where he has been champion in four of the last five years.
The Spanish world number one proved that his game is heading back to its lethal best as won the Madrid title when Japan's Kei Nishikori quit trailing 2-6, 6-4, 3-0 with back pain on Sunday.
After surprise quarter-final defeats on his favoured clay this spring in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Nadal will be pleased to travel to Italy as a winner.
He comes to the Foro Italico with a yearning to make more history by claiming a ninth trophy at the French Open starting May 25.
Nadal begins play in Rome against either Frenchman Gilles Simon or Italian Filippo Volandri.
Nadal did himself a favour with his Madrid success, ensuring that he will hang onto the top ranking for another week heading into Paris.
The Spaniard will begin his 32nd week in a row at number one and 134th overall.
He is making his 10th straight Rome appearance, winning a record seven titles from eight finals for a 41-2 career record at the venue.
He is also more optimistic about his chances over the rest of the season.
“I am 28 in a few weeks' time. How many years have I been on the tour? 12? That's a lot. But I'm where I am. I'm competing for tournaments and I feel well physically,” said Nadal.
“I'm feeling better and better physically, better than a year ago. This is the most important thing. I still feel fortunate for doing what I'm doing.”
Novak Djokovic, who withdrew from Madrid to let a right wrist injury properly heal, returned to Rome with new coach Boris Becker in tow and immediately hit the practice courts.
The second-seeded Serb opens against Czech veteran Radek Stepanek in his opener.
Two-time champion Djokovic lifted the Rome title in 2008 and 2011 while losing finals in 2009 and 2012 to Nadal.
Australian Open and Monte Carlo winner Stanislas Wawrinka takes the third seeding and will work to come good after his opening loss in Madrid a year after playing Nadal in that final.
New father of twins Roger Federer, seeded fourth, is due to make a late decision on his participation.
If he starts, the Swiss will begin in the second round against Jeremy Chardy, who defeated Robin Haase 6-4, 6-4.
Madrid semi-finalist David Ferrer is seeded fifth, ahead of Tomas Berdych, number seven Andy Murray and Canadian Milos Raonic, a first-round loser a year ago who stand 0-3 on the Roman clay.
The top of the women's draw remains a question mark, with top seed and holder Serena Williams hoping to be fit after withdrawing from the Madrid quarter-finals due to a left thigh injury which required a heavy strapping all week in Spain
“I am planning to play in Rome. Fortunately, I have a bye next week so will have an extra day of rest,” said Williams. “I will take it one day at a time and take advantage of some extra rest.”
The American would open against either Swiss Romina Oprandi or Germany's Andrea Petkovic in the second round.
Seeded second in a duplicate of the Madrid lineup is China's Li Na, a 2012 losing finalist to Sharapova.
Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska takes the third seeding ahead of Romanian Simona Halep, the runner-up to Sharapova in Madrid. Czech Petra Kvitova is seeded fifth ahead of Serb Jelena Jankovic.
Sharapova has become a major force on clay after winning Madrid to follow up her Stuttgart title from last month and remains an undefeated 11-0 on the surface this spring.
The Russian takes the eighth seeding.
“Once I get to Rome, I'll dedicate myself to that tournament,” said the winner in 2011 and 2012 who had to quit injured a year ago. – Sapa-AFP