- Associated Press - Monday, January 2, 2012

DOHA, QATAR (AP) - Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are eyeing a confidence-boosting victory at the season-opening Qatar Open. But Novak Djokovic, elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, is already showing signs that made him such a force in 2011.

Djokovic wrapped up his first title in Abu Dhabi on Saturday and said he is feeling better than he did at this time last season. That does not bode well for the No. 2 Nadal and No. 3 Federer. After all, the top-ranked Djokovic won three Grand Slams on his way to a 70-6 record.

Nadal, who lost to Djokovic in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon finals in 2011, said expectations for the Serb are clear.

“Everybody thinks that Djokovic will be difficult to beat, no?” Nadal said. “Not just myself.”

Nadal, seeded first, opens Tuesday against Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany. Federer faces Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, whom he beat in the final last year. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France plays Malek Jaziri of Tunisia while Gael Monfils takes on Rui Machado of Portugal.

All seeded players advanced in Monday’s first round. Fifth-seeded Viktor Troicki of Serbia beat Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic 6-4, 7-6 (4); sixth-seeded Alex Bogomolov Jr. of Russia rallied past Filippo Volandri of Italy 5-7, 6-4, 6-2; and eighth-seeded Andreas Seppi of Italy downed Lukasz Kubot of Poland, 6-2, 6-3.

Nadal suggested that, for now, he has come to terms with being No. 2.

“You know in the sport … you cannot be every time in the top,” he said. “I think I played fantastic for seven, eight months in the 2011 season.

“I lost against Djokovic in all the finals, but I almost only lost against him. So that’s a really positive thing, play almost every final in all the difficult and important tournaments.”

Nadal lost to Djokovic in six finals in 2011 and wouldn’t say whether he can reverse the trend. The Spaniard has said he felt his tennis in 2011 at times was too predicable. He has started using a heavier racket to increase his power. His preparations for the season have been curtailed by a left shoulder injury that he says has healed.

“The only thing I know is I have to practice to improve my tennis. For the rest of my career, I don’t know if that’s going to be enough to beat him (Djokovic) or to lose to him 100 more times,” Nadal said.

“I don’t even know, but I cannot predict that,” he added. “What I can predict is I (am) going to work hard to try to be enough competitive to play with good chances against everybody, not only against him because the first thing, you have to be in the finals. That’s a very difficult thing to do, not only win that once.”

Federer, too, couldn’t avoid questions about Djokovic, who beat the Swiss in the Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament last week. He lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open and U.S. Open but exacted some revenge at the French Open semifinals by ending Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak.

“He was definitely the most consistent player of this last year, and he looks like he’s in good shape again for this upcoming season,” Federer said.

“So it’s obviously someone who is going to be followed very closely not just by the media but also by the players,” he said. “I think we’re also all feeling pretty well, as well, so it’s going to be interesting for all of us to see who’s going to have the best start to the season.”

Federer said his strong finish last season _ a 17-match winning streak that culminated in a record sixth title at the year-end championships in London _ has given him hope.

“You can definitely take confidence from the end of the year and sort of just carry it over because you’re in a good mindset,” Federer said. “You know, you just believe that you’re doing the right things on the court. You’re not second guessing yourself. From that standpoint, confidence is … it’s a huge part of our, you know, life sometimes as a tennis player.”

As for the chances of regaining the top ranking or winning another major this season, the 16-time Grand Slam champion said it was too early to make bold predictions. “You have to go step by step, and right now focus is on Doha, my first round. It’s a tough one against Davydenko,” Federer said.

“Then I do hope I can move on and defend my title here and then go to sort of Australia and make my move over there,” he added. “Then I have a lot coming up in February, as well, for me. So it’s going to be an interesting next two months for me because I will be playing a lot of tennis. So I hope that I will hold up well physically.”

Federer said there was no need for significant changes to his game because he has been playing well.

“I think the offseason has been too short to take any major, you know, change, anything crazy,” he said. “I mean, I have had what, 20 days of practice? I don’t think anybody can reinvent themselves within three weeks. Given three months, things can change a bit.”


Follow Michael Casey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mcasey1

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