Nadal prohibitive favorite to claim fourth straight Rome title

Tournament: Rome Masters
Surface: Clay
Draw: 64
Prize money: $3.5 million
Top seeds: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko

The second clay-court Masters Series tournament of the year is set to begin and with it, the usual suspects will be looking to set the tone and gain confidence for the French Open.

Rafael Nadal is the three-time defending champion and the undeniable favorite to win his fourth straight, but the Spaniard is also coming off a vigorous couple weeks, which included titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, respectively.

Does the world No. 2 have enough left in the tank to take yet another title on the dirt? Here's how we predict the Rome Masters will play itself out.

First Quarter: Federer's tricky path
The Swiss suffered arguably his most embarrassing loss of 2007 in last year's third round, exiting with barely a whimper to local favorite Filippo Volandri, precipitating a split with coach Tony Roche.

He could have his hands full early this week. Barring a huge upset, Argentine Guillermo Canas awaits in the second round.

Canas toppled Federer twice in succession last year on hard courts, having ample motivation after recently returning from a contentious drug ban. This season, Canas is still rebuilding following a serious wrist injury. Federer, though, has been vulnerable in his opening matches at the Estoril Open and Monte Carlo Masters.

If he gets past Canas, things won't get much easier. Paul-Henri Mathieu, a semifinalist in Munich last week, could follow, and David Ferrer looms in the quarterfinals. Ferrer reached the Barcelona final yesterday, taking Nadal to three sets.

Prediction: Federer

Second Quarter: Novak Djokovic's reply
The Serb received his fair share of criticism for pulling out in the second set of his semifinal against Federer in Monte Carlo, citing a sore throat and dizziness. It was the second time in a few months he'd quit a vital match.

His first real test probably arrives in the third round, in the form of either Russian Igor Andreev or Argentine Juan Monaco, second to Nadal in 2007 clay wins.

If the seedings stick, another Argentine, David Nalbandian, would be Djokovic's quarterfinal opponent. Nalbandian continues to underachieve and might be gone in the second if he meets Spaniard Nicolas Almagro. Robin Soderling, the bullish Swede who lost to Nalbandian 9-7 in the fifth set on Davis Cup duty in Buenos Aires last month, is another threat.

This time, the crowd won't be a factor.

Prediction: Djokovic

Third Quarter: Andy Roddick's progress
Roddick has had an encouraging year, knocking off Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, so perhaps he'll be more motivated than ever to tackle the less than friendly (to him and the rest of the Americans) European clay. Compatriot Sam Querrey's unexpected quarterfinal showing in Monte Carlo might provide some inspiration, too.

Roddick should find himself in the third round -- he could meet good friend Mardy Fish in the second -- and that's when the hard part starts. The improving Simone Bolelli, Sunday's Munich finalist, or Frenchman Gilles Simon figure to surface.

Bolelli had a draining week in Munich, though playing at home could overcome any fatigue. Nikolay Davydenko, coming off a rare week's rest, has an easy looking path to the quarters.

Prediction: Davydenko

Fourth Quarter: It's all about Nadal
Another clay season, another dominant performance so far from the Spaniard: He's dropped one set en route to claiming the Monte Carlo and Barcelona titles.

As he tries for a fourth straight Rome crown, there's little to suggest trouble early. He dispatched Juan Carlos Ferrero, his probable second-round foe, comfortably in Monte Carlo, and Stanislas Wawrinka, a semifinalist in Barcelona and possible third-round challenger, struggles to win big matches (if he had much chance anyway).

The next highest seed is James Blake. Blake asked for a wildcard into Barcelona and promptly lost to German Denis Gremelmayr -- enjoying the best time of his career -- in the second round. Blake will struggle to advance past the third in Rome, given Volandri, Fernando Verdasco and Carlos Moya hovering around.

Prediction: Nadal

Djokovic's retirement wasn't the only notable extract from his Monte Carlo semifinal. The classy Federer might have gained a few more fans for urging Djokovic's parents to be quiet when a call went against their son. Motivation surely won't be a problem for either.

Federer is finding his form following a bout of mono, and as many pundits suggest, he and Nadal are still a cut above the rest on clay.

Prediction: Federer, Nadal to advance

Regardless of how fit Nadal is -- and that's been questioned in the last year -- reaching three finals in as many weeks is a tiring experience. If Federer leads 4-0 in a set this time, as he did in the Monte Carlo finale, could Nadal rally?

The opening set is pivotal.

Prediction: Nadal

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.