Monte Carlo, 11 April 2011 | AFP

Roger Federer has warned Rafael Nadal that he faces a battle to lift an historic seventh consecutive title on clay at the Monte Carlo Masters.

With play getting underway on Sunday with three matches – two Frenchmen went down at the first hurdle – Federer said that he was ready for the transition into the intense pre-French Open run-up which traditionally begins in the principality.

“It’s always a tough surface to try to dominate – except if you’re Rafa – let’s put it that way,” said the Swiss who lost Monte Carlo finals to his rival form 2006-2008.

“I feel very strong on the surface. It’s the surface I grew up on. Everybody knows that by now.”

On court, Latvian Ernests Gulbis produced a minor upset as he knocked out 14th seed Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine 6-1 6-4 while veteran Ivan Ljubicic beat Jeremy Chardy of France 6-1 6-2.

Canadian Milos Raonic, playing his first ATP match on clay, took a momentum-shifting win over French veteran Michael Llodra 6-3 0-6 6-0.

With Nadal defending points from all three Masters 1000 events played on the surface plus a fifth Roland Garros title, the job at hand for the Spaniard is intense.

Federer, by contrast, had a best clay showing a year ago at the Madrid final he lost to Nadal just a few weeks before exiting in the quarterfinals of the grand slam in Paris to Robin Soderling.

“I guess it depends a lot on Rafa,” said the Swiss. “If he’s able to defend everything he did last year, it’s going to be tough for anybody.”

But Federer, third in the world behind Nadal and Novak Djokovic, unbeaten this season with 24 wins in 2011 but not playing this week due to a knee injury, still quietly fancies his own chances as the spring season begins.

“I can take a huge step forward if I go really deep here in Monaco, and also in Rome and so forth. Clearly I don’t have much to defend at the French and Wimbledon, I’ll have some opportunities as well, especially when the slams roll around.

“There’s a lot to play for us in the next three, four months,” he said of the tight race for the world number one ranking.

“Sure, I know Rafa has a lot of pressure, but I don’t think that matters that much for him, especially on this surface.

“He’s so confident, he’s so good, I definitely could see him doing it again. But there’s other guys that have something to say. I hope I’m one of those guys.

“Most of my career is played on hard courts on faster courts, clay I only play three or four a year, I don’t get that many opportunities.

“But I’m really happy with my clay court career, if you just want to break it down to those, because I have, what, three finals here, a couple of finals in Rome I think, I have multiple French Open finals.

“I could have had much more, but I could also have had much less. So I’m happy with what I have.”