(Reuters) – Novak Djokovic said he hopes to hit the ground running at Monte Carlo having begun preparations for the clay season early after the world number one was forced to skip tournaments in the United States last month.

Djokovic, 35, who is unvaccinated against COVID-19, was unable to enter the country after unsuccessfully applying to the U.S. government for special permission to play at Indian Wells and Miami.

The Australian Open champion last competed in early March when he lost in the Dubai semi-finals and said his enforced absence from the Tour helped him focus on Monte Carlo, where he lost in the second round last year.

“I’ve done more training on clay, which is positive if you think about the clay season,” said Djokovic, the 2013 and 2015 champion who meets Mackenzie McDonald or a qualifier first.

“I’ve not had much success in Monte Carlo in the past two seasons. I haven’t played great tennis here, so I’m hoping this year I can start the clay season better than previous years and build my form.”

With Rafa Nadal skipping Monte Carlo due to injury, Djokovic will also look to build momentum ahead of the French Open where the Serbian will target a 23rd Grand Slam to go ahead of the Spaniard.

Djokovic, who trains at Monaco, said home comforts could prove helpful is his quest for a record-extending 39th Masters 1000 crown at Monte Carlo.

“It’s a club I know well. Quite a few top players reside in Monaco and use this club as a training base, Djokovic said.

“The club transforms incredibly during the weeks of the tournament but it’s a great feeling to sleep in your own bed.”

In first round action on Sunday, 10th seed Hubert Hurkacz rallied to beat Laslo Djere 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-6(5) while Nicolas Jarry stunned 15th seed Borna Coric 6-2 6-3.

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

ATP 500 – Dubai Tennis Championships – The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Centre, Dubai, United Arab Emirates – March 3, 2023 Serbia’s Novak Djokovic during his semi final match against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev REUTERS/Amr Alfiky/File Photo