Rome - It's time for Roger Federer to step up his game if he wants his recent seven-week break from the tennis circuit to start paying off.
The 17-time Grand Slam winner returned to action last week at the Madrid Open and got his clay-court season off to a difficult start with a third-round loss to Kei Nishikori of Japan.
"I hope it's going to have some effect eventually," Federer said on Sunday at the Italian Open, having just completed a three-hour training session for the second consecutive day. "Clearly for that I need to start playing well now and put myself deep into a tournament."
If he does manage to put together a few wins, Federer believes he'll be fresher mentally than his opponents.
"Most of them have played two or three tournaments on clay and I'm still looking to get into it, but that can be a big advantage down the stretch," the second-ranked player said. "But for that I need to start winning matches, and I hope I can start here."
Federer has never won the Italian Open, with his best results two runner-up finishes. He lost the 2003 final to Felix Mantila and in 2006 dropped a fifth-set tie-breaker to Rafael Nadal.
This tournament is a key warm-up for the French Open, the year's second Grand Slam, which starts in two weeks.
At 31, Federer has narrowed his focus to the Grand Slams and spending more time with his wife and twin daughters.
Federer advised against reading too much into the Nishikori loss, although wasn't aware of anyone writing him off already.
"Has it started again? I didn't read anything," Federer said when asked how many times he had been written off after a loss like the one in Madrid. "I'm happy that the last year or so I didn't have to answer many questions. Clearly, when you play well and you win many tournaments then nobody really dares to attack you."
In the five tournaments he has played this year, Federer has failed to reach a final. After losing to Nadal in the Indian Wells quarter-finals in March, he began his scheduled break.
"I could have played six weeks in a row. I chose to take seven weeks off," Federer said. "There's no glory in that. People don't respect it enough until I'm going to win a big tournament again, then they'll say how smart I was. That's why you just take it as it comes."
The Nishikori loss came after Federer opened in Madrid with a win over Radek Stepanek.
After a first-round bye at the Foro Italico, Federer will open against either Stepanek again or Italian wild card Potito Starace.