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Rafa's daunting return to clay

An ailing knee forced Novak Djokovic out of one of his favorite tournaments of the season, the Monte Carlo Masters. Understandably, he's bummed.

But look at it this way: Without Rafael Nadal looming, Djokovic's already impressive 2011 winning streak of 24 matches will likely continue longer than it would have.

Djokovic's next stop is at home in Belgrade, a modest tourney, so he should collect four more victories. And you'd back him to win a couple of matches at the Madrid Masters the ensuing week.

But even without Djokovic, a fine field will march into the Mediterranean, led by the almost-invincible Nadal. Overall, eight of the top 10 are in attendance at the traditional clay-court curtain-raiser. Mind you, not many in that group are enjoying success at the moment.

What's the prognosis for the top eight seeds? Let's have a look.

No. 1 Rafael Nadal

Good news: There's not much to trouble Nadal in his quarter, or half of the draw. Richard Gasquet is playing better with new coaches, and we know about his past in Monte Carlo, beating Federer as a teen, but that was a long time ago.

Bad news: Nadal, gunning for seven straight titles in Monte Carlo, showed uncharacteristic frailty against Djokovic in Indian Wells and Miami, blowing a set lead both times. At the business end of the tournament, will any self-doubt surface?

No. 2 Roger Federer

Good news: Had Djokovic played, Federer would have potentially met the Serb or Nadal in the semifinals, a serious roadblock to the finale. Now that Djokovic is out of the equation, his path to a fourth final -- and first since 2008 -- is significantly easier.

Bad news: Federer has immediate danger, perhaps confronting Philipp Kohlschreiber after a bye. Versatile as he is, Kohlschreiber's best surface remains clay, and the German ousted a big name, Andy Murray, in Monte Carlo last season. More dangerous still is clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro.

No. 3 Andy Murray

Good news: Clay is a new beginning for Murray. Yes, we hear you saying that didn't work in 2010, but the Scot is due for his first win since the end of January. His quarter is gentle, too. Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci isn't progressing as fast as first thought; Gael Monfils hasn't played since February; and Mikhail Youzhny, not on his most prolific surface, is struggling.

Bad news: Threats do lurk. Albert Montanes, getting better with age, knows how to play on clay and reached the quarterfinals last season. He's probably Murray's opponent in the third round. Murray lands either Radek Stepanek or Marcos Baghdatis in his opener, and they're both unpredictable. Baghdatis, however, has been predictably bad lately, dropping five straight.

No. 4 David Ferrer

Good news: Ferrer gets a chance to find his game. After reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open, he flopped on hard courts in Rotterdam, Indian Wells and Miami. Although he's reached two Grand Slam semis on hard courts, he's most comfortable on clay.

Bad news: A few babies might be around, putting off the hard-nosed -- on court, that is -- Spaniard. In the third round, magician Alexandr Dolgopolov, who prefers playing on clay, or the thumping Milos Raonic would present some difficulties. With a serve like his, Raonic can't be underestimated on clay.

No. 5 Tomas Berdych

Good news: Berdych doesn't have many points to defend in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, giving him a chance to move even higher in the rankings. His toughest foe prior to the quarterfinals might be Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela, still going relatively strong. They'd tangle in the second round.

Bad news: Given Nadal lies in his quarter, there's virtually no chance of exceeding the final eight. Winning two matches is job done.

No. 6 Fernando Verdasco

Good news: Perhaps clay is what Verdasco, who's under .500 since the U.S. Open, needs. He was the second-hottest player on dirt entering last year's French Open, a runner-up in Monte Carlo, winner in Barcelona and semifinalist in Rome.

Bad news: He's defending a lot of points, so the pressure could get to the Spaniard. And his potential first opponent is countryman Tommy Robredo. He leads Verdasco 3-0 in their head-to-head clay encounters. Robredo was on the up before being sidelined with an adductor injury.

No. 7 Jurgen Melzer

Good news: From a fan's perspective, Melzer makes for compelling viewing. He oozes with talent, perennially producing some outstanding shots, and not many pummel their racket better.

Bad news: For those who suggested Melzer overachieved in 2010, they're being proved right. The Austrian has gone a mediocre 7-6 in 2011, his lone quarterfinal emanating from a smaller tournament in Marseille. Even if he wins his opener, Almagro is probably there waiting in the third round.

No. 8 Gael Monfils

Good news: One of the game's most exciting players, Monfils is back from a wrist injury. Monfils habitually plays well at home in France -- and Monte Carlo isn't that far away.

Bad news: Even though Monfils' quarter isn't overly stacked, rust is sure to be a factor. The top priority for Monfils is to be 100 percent for the French Open.


London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.