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Given he spent eight months out of the game due to tendinitis in his knee, you could forgive Rafael Nadal for taking his time to ease himself back into tennis. Not a bit of it. Since his February return to the Spanish matador has reached six finals out of six before this week’s tournament in Madrid, winning four of them. Such is his dominance on the red surface, you may as well rename clay court season, Rafa season, and Rome in particular has been a very happy hunting ground in recent years. Aside from defeat to Novak Djokovic in the final in 2011, Nadal has only lost once at the Foro Italico in nine years, a surprise second round loss to Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2008, and there is no doubt he is eyeing more glory as he prepares to defend his French Open title for a third consecutive year. Nadal desperately wants to increase his current No.5 ranking, after dropping down the list due to his injury nightmare. Djokovic, who has battled with Nadal, in the final everyone wanted over the last two years and Roger Federer head the list of likely challengers to Nadal. But Djokovic and Federer have both suffered shock defeats early in Madrid this week to Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori respectively. It is difficult to see past Nadal, Djokovic and Federer although world No.4, a wily competitor who has had several running battles with compatriot Nadal, could present a challenge especially after the entertaining quarter-final in Madrid on Friday. Andy Murray has reached 40 career finals but not one of them has been on a clay court. There is plenty of home pressure on Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi with no Italian man reaching the final in Rome since Adriano Panatta in 1978. Qualifying for both the men’s and women’s section of the draw begins on Saturday.