Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer return to action at the Rome Masters as the stars of the ATP Tour look to fine tune ahead of the French Open.
Along with Stanislas Wawrinka, the duo are the main threats to Sky Bet's favourite and reigning champion Rafael Nadal but carry very different doubts after being sidelined in Madrid due to a wrist problem and fatherhood respectively.
Eight of the top 10 will be in attendance with Juan Martin del Potro a long-term absentee and Kei Nishikori out after injuring his back in the Spanish capital, a heart-breaking blow for the 24-year-old.
While his run to the final saw Nishikori become the first top-10 ranked Japanese player, that will serve as little immediate comfort after the problem denied him the greatest triumph of his career, leading the 'King of Clay' 6-2 4-2 before the problem ravaged his hopes.
It has been a season characterised by the chasing pack banging on the door, with Wawrinka leading the way with Australian Open and Monte Carlo Masters titles.
To say order was restored in Madrid would be naive, with Nadal facing little resistance due to a depleted field before being outclassed by Nishikori.
For that reason some may be tempted to look beyond the top four and a disillusioned Andy Murray, but who can reign in Rome? Let's explore.
It might be perceived that the draw has fallen perfectly for Nadal, with world No 8 and out-of-sorts Murray in his quarter and Wawrinka, who has never even taken the Spaniard to a tie-break in five defeats on clay, in his half. However, Wawrinka is a different proposition in 2014, wildly inconsistent as he sways between early exits and historic triumphs. Murray, however, endures a wretched record against Nadal but, if his form is rediscovered, should theoretically be able to offer as much of a threat as Nishikori, who possesses a very similar game. Djokovic and Federer head the other side of the draw, with David Ferrer and Milos Raonic their main competition for semi-final berths.
Being the final Masters event before the French Open, the clay at the Foro Italico is prepared to replicate the red dirt at Roland Garros. The surface naturally plays into the hands of the specialists but, as we approach the back-end of the European clay swing, most should be well adapted by now. The forecast is pretty mixed during the week, with rain forecast on Tuesday and Thursday meaning slower conditions, but clear blue skies and temperatures around 20C are expected for the weekend.
The contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Where to start with Nadal's form? It's been an underwhelming campaign after arguably the game's greatest ever comeback in 2013 - hobbling through a Australian Open final defeat to Wawrinka, suffering shock losses to David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and then being let off the hook by Nishikori's injury. I was quick to jump on Nadal at odds-against with Djokovic absent last week but I'm not so keen this time round at only slightly shorter odds amid a far more competitive field, with a weakness exploited in the Spaniard's game. Nishikori was able to replicate Djokovic's effective tactic of opening up the court, predominantly going to Nadal's backhand initially and then aggressively taking on his forehand. This has served to neutralise his main weapon but requires laser accuracy from both wings. As with any clay-court tournament, the seven-time Rome champion warrants his favouritism but has rarely looked so vulnerable coming into an event.
The Serb will be desperate to get his first clay-court title of the campaign under his belt after enduring a frustrating year to date, with a right wrist injury hampering him in a Monte Carlo semi-final loss to Federer and then seeing him sit out Madrid. Given the nature of the problem, Djokovic needs his wrist to be 100 per cent to triumph here, so backing the Serb encompasses that gamble. However, his natural fitness and talent mean the brief lay-off should have very little impact on his game if the injury has fully healed. His triumph at the Monte Carlo Masters last year was a perfect example, as he almost missed the event after being sidelined with an ankle problem but still managed to produce his best tennis to dethrone Nadal. That standard has been absent for much of 2014 and he will need to rediscover it if he is to add to his 2008 and 2011 titles here and head into the French Open with the mental edge.
Some suggest Wawrinka should have gone into to the Madrid Masters as the favourite after adding the Monte Carlo title to his Melbourne success. However, he still lacks the consistency of the top two, with a second-round defeat to talented 20-year-old Dominic Thiem scoffing such suggestions. It was a truly impressive display from the youngster, showing why many are touting him as a future star. Wawrinka will be well rested and refocused here and is certainly comfortable on clay, claiming four of his seven career titles on the surface. He'll certainly be an outsider if he can set up a semi-final date with Nadal but one plenty will fancy given his exploits in 2014.
As if winning 17 Grand Slams were not enough, Federer returns to the tour after seeing his second successive set of twins born. Fun suggestions have been bounced around surrounding the future feats of his twin boys and girls, but the Swiss star will be serious about getting his preparations right for the French Open. At 32 and with unprecedented success to his name, it would have been easy for Federer to stay at home with the new members of his family and let the clay campaign slip away, especially with Wimbledon a far more realistic target. However, while he clearly believes there is more to come from his game, limitations have been exposed in defeats in all three meetings with the current top three this season.
The world No 5 follows in the outright at 16/1 following an inconsistent 2014, with his victory over Nadal in Monte Carlo his only top-10 scalp. Also at 32, Ferrer is perhaps struggling to impose the relentless physicality which he was once capable of. A semi-final run at Madrid was on par but being outclassed by Nishikori reinforced the reality that his level has dropped quite significantly.
Times don't get much tougher than what the Scot is currently experiencing. Having slipped down to eighth in the world and lost his coach, Wimbledon must feel a world away for Murray. It gets worse with Murray actually 13th in the Race to London rankings, having failed to win a single title since SW19. His belated start to the clay campaign saw him labour to a three-set win against an injured Nicolas Almagro and then lose in straight-sets to world No 36 Santiago Giraldo. Even if Murray, who has a semi-final run at the French Open to his name, could produce his best clay-court tennis, a first title on the surface looks very unlikely with Nadal in his quarter.
Best of the rest
Tomas Berdych (33/1) and Grigor Dimitrov (33/1) both have the attacking games to trouble the best but will be far less effective in the slower conditions. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (40/1), Ernests Gulbis (33/1) and Milos Raonic (100/1) fall into the next category but need to 'red light' for two consistent sets to upset the top-tier players. I've backed Dimitrov to make his big breakthrough a fair few times this year but struggle to see it coming here given the court speed and competition.
With the French Open looming, I'm backing the quality to prevail and fancy Djokovic to claim his third crown here. If the wrist is fully healed then I think he will take advantage of Nadal's vulnerability and I'd even go as far to suggest backing him to win a final meeting in straight sets, which is always over-priced and has been the case in six of their last seven meetings in a best-of-three format.