World No. 2 Rafael Nadal kickstarts the new season at the ATP Chennai Open from today against the strongest field ever assembled for India's leading tennis event.
The Spaniard's main challenger at the US$416,000 season opener will be world No. 8 David Nalbandian who led Argentina into the Davis Cup final against eventual winners Russia last month.
Veteran Carlos Moya, a two-time champion here, Asian star Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand and world No. 37 Xavier Malisse of Belgium will lend further glitter to a event that features 18 top-100 players.
Three Frenchmen -- the 40th-ranked Julien Benneteau, Fabrice Santoro and Nicolas Mahut -- are also in the race along with newly-crowned Asian Games champion Danai Udomchoke of Thailand.
"This is going to be a tough week, a tough start to the season," said 20-year-old Nadal, who faces former world No. 5 Rainer Schuettler of Germany in the first round.
Nadal, looking to challenge world champion Roger Federer for the No. 1 spot this year, hopes for a better start to the year after a crippling foot injury kept him out of the first six weeks of the past season.
He missed last year's Australian Open before winning five of his first eight tournaments including a second successive French Open title at the Roland Garros.
But the gutsy left-hander failed to win another title in his last eight tournaments of the season.
Nalbandian, who turns 25 today, hopes to recapture the form that made him world No. 3 in March and earned him the year-ending Masters title in 2005.
The Argentine, who is seeded to meet Nadal in the final, takes on Kristian Pless of Denmark in the opening round and faces a possible semi-final clash against either Moya, Paradorn or Benneteau.
Paradorn, who reached the Chennai Open final for four consecutive years from 2002-2005 and won the title in 2003, is fit again after a wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the Asian Games singles tournament in Doha.
Paradorn faces a qualifier in the first round, but Udomchoke is up against third-seeded Malisse in a draw that Indian tennis legend Vijay Amritraj said would test the best.
"There will be no easy matches out there," Amritraj said. "Nadal and Nalbandian are obviously the favorites but the tournament is wide open because of the strong field."
Asian Games doubles gold medalists and three-time Grand Slam champions Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, who do not play together on the ATP circuit any more, have opted out of their home event.
Paes has preferred to play with doubles partner Martin Damm in the Qatar Open in Doha from today, while Bhupathi is recovering from a wrist injury.