For the ninth time in his career, Rafael Nadal won the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters on Sunday, defeating Gael Monfils 7-5, 5-7, 6-0.
Nadal became the first man in the Open Era to earn at least nine wins at two different tournaments—he's also won the French Open nine times—according to ESPN Stats & Information. It was his first win of this season, however, and his first win since the Bet-at-home Open in late July 2015.
Craig O'Shannessy of the New York Times broke down the victory:
Craig O'Shannessy @BrainGameTennis
#Nadal win #9 in Monte Carlo. Crushed. It was 3 sets but never any doubt. Only 1 ace. Who cares? https://t.co/W6wmPmbQI62016-4-17 15:34:39
"This has been one of the most special places in my career," Nadal said to the crowd following the win, per Nicolas Atkin of ESPN. "It's just a pleasure to be back here in a final playing in front of you at this amazing club. It has been a very special week for me, winning here in Monte Carlo. What really makes it even more special is the fantastic crowd. Many thanks to everybody here."
Sunday's triumph didn't come easy, however.
Nadal took the first set, grinding out a 7-5 battle with Monfils. Both players created plenty of chances, but it was Nadal who converted three out of 10 break-point opportunities to sneak past with the first-set triumph. Monfils was no slouch, converting two of his six break-point chances.
While Nadal controlled the first set with his first serve, winning 74 percent of his first-serve points, Monfils jumped on his second serve, as he won 71 percent of the Spaniard's second-serve points.
Neither player gave the other an inch in the opening set, highlighted by this brilliant rally, per TennisTV:
Tennis TV @TennisTV
Yet more SUPER rallies. #Nadal prevails in a titanic exchange! #Monfils https://t.co/0kjW9S7D3t https://t.co/slVg69oXVT2016-4-17 13:41:58
Nadal also showed flashes of of his legendary defense during the first set:
Tennis TV @TennisTV
AMAZING defence from #Nadal to earn the break against #Monfils. https://t.co/0kjW9S7D3t https://t.co/bm9p1CyObB2016-4-17 13:13:31
That set up a battle of attrition in the second set. And it showed, as Howard Bryant of ESPN noted:
Full Dissident @hbryant42
In short, these two beat the hell out of each other in the first set and are both holding on...2016-4-17 14:41:12
Monfils would win that battle, holding off Nadal in a thrilling close to the set. After breaking Nadal early in the set, the Frenchman was broken back, and Nadal pulled even at four games apiece. But the Spaniard couldn't hold serve, and Monfils broke him again, this time holding on for the 7-5 win.
Monfils again pounced on Nadal's second serve, winning five of those six points. After winning 26 percent of Nadal's first-service points in the first set, Monfils also improved that number to 39 percent in the second set, as Nadal appeared to wear down late in the set.
Nadal was not to be denied, however, as he earned a bagel in the final set, dominating Monfils with his serve. The Spaniard won 91 percent of his first-serve points in the final set and converted three of a possible five break points, pulling away from Monfils after an epic battle in the first two sets.
And he closed out the match in style:
Tennis TV @TennisTV
What a way to end it! A thumping forehand from #Nadal to clinch his 9th title in Monte Carlo. #Monfils https://t.co/H836R8k3Nm2016-4-17 15:41:58
It was a reminder of how unplayable a healthy and in-form Nadal can be on his favorite surface.
And this triumph was a huge one, as he continues his preparations for the French Open, where he's traditionally been dominant but failed to win a year ago. The clay-court season was always Nadal's domain, though his dip in form in recent years has seen that change.
And he went through a tough draw at Monte Carlo, defeating Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Monfils. That's an excellent sign for Nadal, though the real test for him will always be his matches against Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Monfils will take some confidence in advancing to the final and giving Nadal a battle for two sets, though his collapse in the final set was a major disappointment. Still, Monfils dropped a solitary set in his entire tournament and played well, an indication that he could be a sleeper threat at the French Open.
If Nadal has regained his form, however, the French Open proceedings will be a mere formality. As history has shown us, peak Nadal doesn't lose at Roland Garros.