CANNING MADRID - World number one Rafael Nadal heads into the Madrid Masters this week in the unusual position of searching for his first title on the European clay this season.
The 13-time Grand Slam champion has dominated on the surface throughout his career, including an incredible stretch last season which included wins in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and finally an eighth French Open title at Roland Garros.
However, Nadal has so far struggled this year to bounce back from a back injury that hampered him in losing the Australian Open final to Stanislas Wawrinka in January.
His slump has included surprise defeats to compatriots David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro at the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open respectively in recent weeks.
Yet, he is hoping home advantage will help him recapture his best form and a fourth title in Madrid.
"Spain is my country and every time I play in any tournament here it is something special. The crowd always make a big difference here," said Nadal.
Nadal could though be dethroned at the top of the world rankings by Novak Djokovic this week should he fail to reach the quarter-finals and the Serb go onto to win for the second time in Madrid.
Djokovic has had injury problems himself recently due to a right wrist injury.
The world number two admitted after losing to Roger Federer in the semi-finals in Monte Carlo that he expected not "to play tennis for some time." However, he will be return to action just two weeks later in an effort to build up some rhythm ahead of his attempt to complete the career Grand Slam in Paris.
Federer, Wawrinka pose dangers
The in-form Swiss duo of Federer and Wawrinka would appear to pose the major threat to Nadal and Djokovic.
Wawrinka made the final in the Spanish capital last year before being swept aside by Nadal, but will be full of confidence after securing his first Masters title in Monte Carlo to go with his maiden Grand Slam in Australia.
Federer has undergone a resurgence too in recent months under the tutelage of Stefan Edberg and is a three-time winner in Madrid, including twice since it became a clay court tournament in 2009.
Wimbledon champion Andy Murray also returns to action for the first time in a month since failing to propel Great Britain into the semi-finals of the Davis Cup and the world number eight will be after some valuable ranking points to boost his seeding ahead of the French Open.
On the women's side Serena Williams returns to defend the title she has won for the past two years.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion has taken over a month off citing tiredness after suffering a shock second round defeat to Jana Cepelova on the green clay of Charleston.
However, worryingly for her competition in Madrid, the world number one insisted she is feeling fresh ahead of her assault on the red clay over the European stretch.
"I'm so much better. I took so much time off and I needed it," she admitted on Friday.
"I had just been playing for such a long time non-stop. It was actually really good for me to get that off. I feel really good and very positive, and I think that's what matters most." Williams will start off against a qualifier with the tie of the opening round coming on the other side of the draw as third seed Agnieszka Radwanska faces Australian Open semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard.
Also in that half of the draw second seed and Australian Open champion Li Na faces Kirsten Flipkins, whilst last year's finalist Maria Sharapova meets Klara Koukalova.