- Rafael Nadal beats Jarkko Nieminen in first round of Monte Carlo Masters
- Defending champions Nadal aiming for a record eighth title
- Tops seed Novak Djokovic beat Alexandr Dolgopolov in first round
- Djokovic aiming to break Nadal's clay court stranglehold
King of Clay Rafael Nadal began his defense of his Monte Carlo Masters title Wednesday with a routine 6-4, 6-3 victory against the Finnish player Jarkko Nieminen.
Nadal, whose incredible form on clay has seen him go unbeaten at the tournament since 2003, showed little discomfort in dispatching Nieminen despite suffering persistent injury problems with his left knee.
The Spaniard had pulled out of the Sony Ericsson Open semifinal against Andy Murray to receive treatment and also missed several tournaments after the Australian Open.
"I need practice, and today was a good practice," Nadal told AFP.
"Tomorrow (is) going to be another tough match against a player who is dangerous."
That "tough match" will be against Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin. If Nadal wins it will be his 39th straight win in the tournament and put him on course for a record eighth title.
"It was the first match on clay after a long time, and the first match after 15 days without touching a racquet," said Nadal.
"The important thing was that I won in straight sets. Tomorrow I have another chance to keep improving, and that's what I'm going to try."
But Nadal isn't the favorite to win.
Top seed and world number one Novak Djokovic looked impressive after beating Italian Andreas Seppi 6-1, 6-4.
"I was really focused first set and played it well against a tough, quality opponent who plays good on clay," explained Djokovic.
"For the first official match since [the French Open at] Roland Garros last year, it was satisfying."
Djokovic will play the Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov in the second round in the hope he can finally break Nadal's clay court stranglehold in Monte Carlo and beyond.
"We've played already here finals in 2009, good match, but Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay," Djokovic said on Monday.
"He's the king of clay. He's the best tennis player ever to play on this surface and one of the best tennis players ever, so that says enough.
"Obviously, knowing in 2011 I won Rome and Madrid and winning against Rafa in finals back-to-back gives me a lot of confidence for coming into the clay court season now."