58. Rafael Nadal defeats Gael Monfils for ninth Monte-Carlo crown

This post was first published by Ubitennis on 17 April 2016 at the following link.

In his 100th ATP tour final, Rafael Nadal defeated Gael Monfils 7-5 5-7 6-0 to win his ninth Monte Carlo Masters title and his first Masters 1000 title since Madrid in 2014. Following a thrilling final lasting 2 hours and 46 minutes, the Spaniard has re-established himself as a clear contender for the French Open in May, while Monfils has also underlined his consistently good form in 2016.

At this stage in Nadal’s career, today’s victory can only add to his outstanding achievements. In addition to being a ninth victory in Monte Carlo, it was a 48th career title on clay (and now just one behind Guillermo Vilas’s record) and a 68th title overall. However, given Nadal’s relatively poor record over the last 12-18 months, this victory was less a matter of picking up yet another clay court accolade and more a statement of renewal: Nadal is back, no question. We will have to wait for another meeting with Novak Djokovic to determine whether Nadal is likely to be the King of Clay again, but, as noted by Peter Fleming on Sky Sports in the UK, Nadal is once again “part of the conversation.” The Spaniard drew level with Djokovic with 28 Masters 1000 titles today: the symbolism is not lost on anyone.

The match itself was a classic for two sets. Each man set out their stall early: Nadal hitting heavy forehands primarily to Monfils’s backhand (68% in set one) and running Monfils from side to side; Monfils patiently rallying before typically unloading on the forehand side – one such winner was clocked at 171 kmh (106 mph). Monfils’s gameplan suggested that he and his coach, Mikael Tillstrom, knew that rallying with Nadal would be a losing energy-sapping strategy, hence the focus on aggression. Tennis’s one-on-one match-ups lend themselves well to boxing metaphors, and so the calculus of the match rapidly became: could the Frenchman land enough haymakers before Nadal’s physically debilitating jabs to the body undid him?

For two sets, the answer was unclear, as the players traded heavy blows as well as breaks of serve. Nadal served for the first set at 5-3 but was broken, he had three set points at 5-4 and finally won the set 7-5 on his fifth set point when Monfils double faulted. It had been a thrilling first set punctuated by some remarkable forehand winners from the Frenchman. The set itself lasted 73 minutes, as long as any of Monfil’s matches this week in Monte Carlo, and, having lost the first set, it was feared that the second would be a procession.

However, in a statement of belief and talent, Monfils broke Nadal in the third game of the second set. And amid further trades in breaks of serve, further rallies where Nadal bossed Monfils from side to side, the Frenchman still came up with enough winners. Roared on by the home crowd, he broke decisively in the 11th game and served out to even up proceedings.

In the last few months, Nadal’s execution at crunch times of a match is one of the things that has been called into question. In adversity however, today’s Nadal was the Nadal of old. At the beginning of the third set, with the match on the line, he became more aggressive and it is this that may please him and his fans the most. He hit more winners (7) in the six-game third set than he did in the 12-game second (6). Unquestionably, Nadal had also taken out Monfil’s legs in the course of the first 2 sets which together lasted well over 2 hours. Nadal sealed victory with an extraordinary forehand down the line at full stretch and then sank to his knees. Redemption starts here.

Prior to this week, the overarching narrative for the French Open at the end of May was whether there were any players who could stop Djokovic from winning his first title. Following Nadal’s win and the performances of Monfils and Murray in Monte Carlo this week, we may have a clue to the identities of those players.

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