PARIS • Roger Federer returns to clay-court tennis for the first time in three years in Madrid next week, admitting it feels like a journey into "no-man's land".
The 37-year-old last tested his ability on European dirt at the 2016 Rome Masters, before opting to focus on the world's hard surfaces and grass courts, which have yielded the bulk of his 101 titles.
But, in the twilight of his career, the Swiss has decided to re-enter a realm of tennis long dominated by his rival Rafael Nadal - and Madrid seems the logical venue.
Federer has won two of his 11 clay titles in the Spanish capital, where the high altitude helps him negate the traditionally pedestrian pace of the dusty surface.
"I'm very excited. It's a good challenge, a good test. Confidence, I don't know, it's in no-man's land. I have to start from scratch," said Federer after winning his most recent title in Miami.
His long-term aim this spring is Roland Garros, where he was champion in 2009 and where he has been a four-time runner-up (2006, 2007, 2008, 2011), losing each time to Nadal.
However, with 11-time French Open winner Nadal in something of a clay-court slump, having been deposed as Barcelona and Monte Carlo champion in recent weeks, Federer sees a glimmer of hope.
That shaft of light brightened when world No. 1 Novak Djokovic exited Monte Carlo in the quarter-finals.
"Roger is still very hungry," Federer's coach Ivan Ljubicic told Sky Sports Italia. "And he has got used to playing on clay again pretty quickly."
Federer's last clay title came in Istanbul in 2015, the same year his last Roland Garros appearance ended with a quarter-final exit at the hands of Stan Wawrinka.
Rome 2016 was the Swiss great's most recent competitive outing on clay, a straight-sets loss to Dominic Thiem in the third round seemingly convincing him that his dirt-court career was done.
"I'm not very confident going into this clay-court season, I can tell you that - I don't even remember how to slide any more," added Federer. "You know, I'm taking baby steps at this point.
AN ALIEN SURFACE
I don't even remember how to slide any more. You know, I'm taking baby steps at this point. To be honest, I didn't play one point - not one shot on clay last year. Two years ago, I played two days.
ROGER FEDERER, 20-time Grand Slam champion who owns 101 titles but only 11 have come on clay.
"To be honest, I didn't play one point - not one shot on clay last year. Two years ago, I played two days.
"Three years ago, I played not feeling great in Monaco and Rome and all that. So it's been so little that I really don't know what to expect."
Despite his caution, his long-time rivals are wary of underestimating the 20-time Grand Slam champion next week.
"Everything is possible for Roger," said world No. 7 Kei Nishikori who can boast that he won his only clay-court meeting with Federer - in Madrid in 2013.
"Winning Roland Garros might be tougher for him than winning the Australian Open or Wimbledon, but I'm sure he can do anything if he tries 100 per cent. He's still my idol, he's the best player in history."