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Djokovic, Federer, Murray look for Rome boost
The leading trio of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all have work to do before the start of the French Open in a fortnight, with the Rome Masters the last tournament chance to whip their clay games into top condition.
Of the three leading seeds at the event, which begins on Sunday at the picturesque Foro Italico, only number three Murray lasted until the quarter-finals in Madrid last week.
Defending champion Federer was ambushed in the third round by Japan's Kei Nishikori while Djokovic, the world's top player, exited a round earlier at the hands of Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.
Federer's strategy of taking seven weeks off to rest some physical niggles and train backfired as he went down to Nishikori in his second match back.
As a result, the Swiss remains the only player in the current top 10 not to have played a final this season.
He and Tomas Berdych, who put out Murray in Madrid, are the lone members of the elite without titles in 2013.
"I'm going to make sure I'm going to be as well prepared as I can be for Rome," said 17-time Grand Slam winner Federer before leaving Madrid.
"Clearly I have no choice but to hit the practice courts."
Federer has never lifted the trophy in Rome, where Rafael Nadal (six titles) and Djokovic (two) have hogged the honours for the last eight editions.
Djokovic confessed to ankle pain from his injury suffered last month in the Davis Cup.
Though he won Monte Carlo at the expense of Nadal, and then did not play for a fortnight, the Serb said that his fitness still needs work.
"The only positive thing is that I didn't injure my ankle worse before Rome and Paris," he said.
Djokovic hopes to remedy his lack of Madrid preparation by the time he begins in the second round in Italy.
He can also look for more respect from sympathetic Italian fans than he got in Madrid, where he was jeered relentlessly by the Spaniards.
Murray may send an SOS to coach Ivan Lendl in the US for some extra clay tutoring after his Madrid loss, with the Scot heading to Rome in hopes of surpassing his 2011 semi-final, which he lost to Djokovic.
Murray expects no particular extra trouble from the back problems which traditionally arise for him on clay.
"I'm a bit sore at the beginning of the matches, and then once I warm up, I start to feel a little bit better."
David Ferrer takes the fourth seeding ahead of Nadal while Berdych is sixth.
Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, the seventh seed who has never been beyond the third round in Rome, will play his first clay match in a month and only his third of the season after missing Portugal and Madrid with a virus
The WTA draw could not have been more cruel to Briton Laura Robson, who faces Venus Williams in the first round and then could get Serena in the second with a victory.
Serena takes the top seeding ahead of Maria Sharapova, who she was facing in Sunday's Madrid final, and number three Victoria Azarenka, who went out of Madrid in a temper fit in the second round.