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Novak Djokovic is adamant that Rafael Nadal is still the man to beat on clay despite suggesting players have been given hope by his recent quarter-final exits in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
The Serbian is set to return to action from a wrist injury at the Italian Open in Rome, with an opening test against Radek Stepanek in what will be his final clay-court tournament before the French Open in Paris starts on Sunday week.
Looking ahead to the second Grand Slam event of 2014, Djokovic accepts that world number one Nadal will be the man to beat as he earned the nickname the ‘King of Clay’ having won eight of his 13 majors at the French Open, including the last four years in succession.
However, there appears to be a chink in the armour of the Spaniard as he crashed out of the recent Monte Carlo and Barcelona tournaments at the last-eight stages to David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro respectively.
Nadal got back to winning ways by retaining his Madrid Open crown on Sunday but he was a set and a break down at 6-2 4-2 to Kei Nishikori when the Japanese star had to retire because of injury.
And Djokovic said: “People expect Rafa to win Monte Carlo and Barcelona – and all the clay tournaments he plays.
“There always comes a time when you lose a match, but he’s still in top shape. Losing in the quarter-finals at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona gives players a little bit more hope that they can win against him, but the men who beat him are still very good players.”
Djokovic is 1.04 to defeat Stepanek in his opening game in Rome, while the Czech is 10.09 to win in the Money Line market.