Monte Carlo a stepping stone for Djokovic

Novak Djokovic is a two-time winner of the Monte Carlo Masters

As Novak Djokovic begins his preparations for a fourth straight Grand Slam title, he likes to imagine beating Rafael Nadal in the French Open final.

"That would be the match of the season, yes," Djokovic said on Sunday at the Monte Carlo Masters.

Djokovic and his long-time rival Nadal are starting their clay-court seasons this week at Monte Carlo, their first tune-up for the May 26-June 9 French Open in Paris, and which could see them meet for a 54th time if they reach the final.

In opening first-round play on Sunday, there were wins for three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, ninth-seeded Borna Coric of Croatia, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and Argentine Guido Pella.

Toppling Nadal at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard is the defending champion and a record 11-time winner, is what Djokovic really wants.

It's something Djokovic considers "one of the ultimate challenges of the sport" - much like facing Roger Federer during his grass-court prime at Wimbledon.

The top-ranked Djokovic has won the past three majors in straight sets, including a stunning rout of Nadal in the Australian Open final this year.

He also has a 28-25 winning record against Nadal.

Yet despite all the positive points stacked up, he considers Nadal a different and much more dangerous opponent at this stage of the season.

"I think Rafa is always a very clear favourite on any clay court in the world, and it doesn't change," Djokovic said.

"He's still there. I mean (it) obviously depends how he's feeling physically. I have seen him (training) here, he's been here a few days. Seems like he's fine."

Djokovic referred to Nadal's troublesome right knee, which flared up again last month and forced the second-ranked Nadal to pull out of his eagerly-awaited semifinal against Federer at Indian Wells.

That was on hard courts, however, and clay is kinder to the 32-year-old Nadal's battered knees.

Nadal has won Monte Carlo 11 times, also a record. His 46-match winning streak in Monte Carlo - broken by Djokovic in the 2013 final - is the most consecutive wins at a tournament by any man or woman.

Both players have byes to the second round here, and are due to play Tuesday or Wednesday.

Nadal will face either countryman Roberto Bautista Agut or John Millman of Australia while Djokovic's opponent will be Taro Daniel of Japan or Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber.