Pressure building for Djokovic, Nadal

It's time for liftoff again on the men's tour. In this golden era of the ATP, no section of the season has run quite as hot as the clay-court season. Tension always builds as the players slide and grind their way across Europe, from Monte Carlo to Madrid to Rome, on their way to the first Grand Slam in four months, in Paris. In past seasons, that tension has surrounded Rafael Nadal and his yearly quest for perfection on dirt. Last year, things got even tenser as Novak Djokovic defied Nadal and brought a record-setting win streak to Roland Garros. It all came to a head on center court there in the semifinals, when Roger Federer ended Djokovic's streak in the most dramatic match of 2011.

How about 2012? As good as he's been, Djokovic doesn't have a streak this time, and few are expecting perfection from Rafa again. But on paper, this clay season, which gets under way in earnest two weeks from now in Monte Carlo, could be the most dramatic of them all.

The primary reason for that is what's going to come at the end: A history-making, potentially era-defining French Open. Last year, Nadal came to Paris with a chance to tie Bjorn Borg's record six titles at Roland Garros, while Djokovic arrived toting his gaudy win streak. If anything, the stakes are even higher for both men this time around. Djokovic will have a chance to become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight majors -- the Djoker Slam. Rafa, meanwhile, could become the first man to win seven titles at Roland Garros. Djokovic has invaded Nadal's territory in London and New York, but thus far Rafa has held his ground in Paris.

Their duel in 2012 should begin much earlier. Both men are set to play in Monte Carlo in mid-April, as well as the Masters events in Madrid and Rome the following month. They might put on a two-man high-wire act all over Europe for the next eight weeks. If, at the end of that act, Djokovic does get the better of Rafa and win his fourth straight Slam, he'll have achieved something that neither Federer nor Nadal could pull off.

What about that third man of men's tennis, Roger Federer? Doesn't he have a say in this? He does, of course, but so far he's not scheduled to play anywhere until Madrid and Rome. That would leave him with five weeks off after his early loss in Key Biscayne, which is perhaps a good thing in a year in which he's targeting an Olympic gold medal. But the tournament director in Monte Carlo is holding a wild card aside for Federer and hoping for a late entry. If Federer takes it, he could potentially challenge Nadal for the No. 2 ranking, and No. 2 seeding at Roland Garros. Rafa is 900 points ahead at the moment, but has much more to defend.

On the one hand, Federer has performed well recently after long breaks. On the other, the last time he took a wild card into Monte Carlo, he went on to win the French Open and Wimbledon. Whether Federer shows up in Monaco alongside Rafa and Nole or not, men's tennis is ready for liftoff.