Roger Federer will test a January knee injury under competitive conditions from Sunday when the Monte Carlo Masters marks the opening of the pre-Roland Garros spring clay court campaign.
The 17-time grand slam champion who has stalled in four finals at the seaside Country Club, has kept fans well in the frame through tweets this week as he trains for the start of his first event in nearly two and a half months.
“Expectations are really low, which is nice for a change,” said Federer. “Just see where I am, go out there.
“But once you’re out there, you want to win, it’s clear. I’m a competitor. I’m just really pleased I’m back.
“I couldn’t be more happy how rehab has gone. It’s baby steps.
Federer will start in the second round after the bye handed to top eight seeds; his first match will come against the winner from Thomaz Bellucci and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
The 34-year-old underwent his knee operation in Switzerland in early February after injuring himself with a sudden, innocuous movement while preparing a bath for his children in Melbourne the day after losing a semi-final to Novak Djokovic.
The Swiss was to have returned a fortnight ago in Miami but came down with a stomach virus and never made his start.
In his absence world number one Novak Djokovic has continued to set a fevered pace, collecting the March hardcourt Masters title double in the US and moving to touching distance of a record $100 million mark in career prize money – a few hundred thousand ahead of Federer.
Holder Djokovic will be in the chase for his third title at his home event after winning 2016 trophies in Doha, Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami.
Seeded second will be Andy Murray, who needs to snap out of the tennis lethargy which has characterised his return to competition since the early February birth of his first child.
The Scot has not played in the principality since 2013 and has tournament-best showings of 2009 and 2011 semi-finals.
Another major name facing a career test will be fifth seed Rafael Nadal, winner of eight consecutive titles from 2005-2012.
The 29-year-old king of clay remains a question mark after struggling during a miserable 2015 but is showing signs of life – though no titles since Hamburg last August – in 2016. His appearance in Miami ended as he quit a match with illness, almost unheard of for the ironman Spaniard.
Nadal remains positive about his favourite part of the season, with emotional as well as physical issues now apparently under control.
“Last year I was competing against myself and this year I am competing against rivals,” he told Spanish media. “I could not get over the anxiety.
“I love what I do. I will train while I am happy. I do not feel anxious while playing. I do not have last year’s issues.” He begins against either Lukas Rosol or Briton Aljaz Bedene.
The 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka takes the fourth seeding ahead of Nadal, Tomas Berdych, seventh seed David Ferrer and number eight Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Novak Djokovic (SEB x1) Andy Murray (GBR x2) Roger Federer (SUI x3) Stan Wawrinka (SUI x4) Rafael Nadal (ESP x5) Tomas Berdych (CZE x6) David Ferrer (ESP x7) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA x8) Richard Gasquet (FRA x9) Milos Raonic (CAN x10) David Goffin (BEL x11) Dominic Thiem (AUT x12) Gael Monfils (FRA x13) Robert Bautista Agut (ESP x14) Gilles Simon (FRA x15) Benoit Paire (FRA x16)
– Agence France-Presse