MIAMI: World number one Roger Federer's grip on the game is looking stronger than ever as he arrives in Miami seeking a second tennis Masters Series crown in as many tournaments.
The mighty Swiss has won 22 of his 23 matches this year, and squelched any doubts raised by his Dubai finals loss to Rafael Nadal with a majestic victory at the first Masters Series tournament of the year at Indian Wells, California, on Sunday.
Federer himself admitted his form in California, where he beat American James Blake in the final, made the outcome almost inevitable.
Excellent, was Federer's analysis after claiming his third straight Indian Wells title.
Although Blake had broken him twice to take a 4-1 lead in the first set, Federer responded to produce a 7-5, 6-3, 6-0 victory that sent him to Florida full of free-swinging confidence.
Coming here, I was extremely tense looking at the draw, thinking, 'Wow, I've got Indian Wells, Key Biscayne to defend,' he said.
It really got me worried. Now that I won, I'm pretty relaxed, very happy.
That's probably bad news for the rest of the field, which includes 15 of the top 16 men in the world with No. 13 Thomas Johansson of Sweden the only absentee.
Even Nadal, who has won three of his four career matches against Federer, admits that for him, the Swiss starts every match as the favorite.
Nadal, ousted by Blake in the semi-finals at Indian Wells, will be trying to improve on that performance in Miami, but also brings a sore ankle suffered in the California desert.
While Blake, seeded ninth in Miami, will be trying to back up his superb Indian Wells performance, third-seeded David Nalbandian of Argentina and No. 4 seed Andy Roddick of the United States will be trying to rebound from disappointing first-round exits.
Nalbandian fell to Thai hero Paradorn Srichaphan, while Roddick's slump continued with a loss to Russian Igor Andreev.
The only possible bright spot for Roddick is that an opening-match loss last year in Miami means he will has no points to defend on his return and could regain third place in the rankings from Nalbandian with a decent run.
On the women's side, France's Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo launches her campaign from the summit of the world rankings, after supplanting Belgian Kim Clijsters as the world number one on Monday.
Neither Mauresmo nor second seed and defending champion Clijsters competed at Indian Wells, where former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova claimed her first title in nine months.
The 18-year-old Russian was buoyed by the triumph, which included a victory over five-time Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis.
But the return to action of Mauresmo and Clijsters means she is seeded one place lower at No. 4 than she was in California. AFP