Rafael Nadal at last made a title-winning start to a year when he held off Gael Monfils 6-1, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2 to clinch the Qatar Open on Saturday.
It was world No. 1 Nadal’s 61st career title and took him to eighth on the all-time list, passing Andre Agassi.
“I never had the chance to win here before. I had match points against Davydenko in the final a few years back,” said Nadal, who was runner-up to Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko in 2010.
“I’m happy to start the season like this, it’s the first time I have won a title in the first week of the year and it’s a great way to start the season,” he said.
Nadal took his record over Monfils to 9-2 with the Frenchman having achieved both his wins over the Spaniard in Doha, in 2009 and 2012.
It was a fine start for Nadal to a year in which he hopes to ward off Novak Djokovic’s challenge for the world No. 1 spot, and in a month when he hopes to regain the Australian Open title after a five-year interval.
His standard rose increasingly as the two-hour contest wore on, and his baseline rallying gradually became tenaciously indestructible, its peak coming in the fourth and fifth games of the final set.
This was when he made a crucial break of Monfils’ serve, and followed it by recovering from love-40 down to saving five break points altogether and consolidate his match-winning lead.
That fifth game was punctuated by moments of drama when Monfils thought he had earned a sixth break back point, only for a line judge to call Nadal’s over-hit backhand drive in.
TV replays confirmed that the shot was indeed out, but Monfils had missed his chance to appeal to the Hawkeye video replay system because he had continued the rally for another stroke.
“A title is always a title especially in the first week when I have never won before,” Nadal said. “I started to see some great play from Gael, and if he [continues to] play like this he has a good chance of reaching the top 10.”
In the first 25 minutes on Saturday, Monfils was too nervous to do himself justice, and it was not until the first game of the second set that he began to get going.
Monfils followed up with some brilliant inside out forehand driving, which earned him a break of serve, and became really excited when he saved two break back points to reach 4-1.
After that he became extremely dangerous, serving ferociously, often rallying intelligently, and always capable of delivering a bombshell winner.
Although Nadal characteristically worked his way back to parity, Monfils produced a wonderful angled return on the sixth point of the tie-break, which earned a mini-break that won him the second set.
“The crowd and the court here are unbelievable, and I just feel very good here,” said Monfils, who was playing his third final in Doha after losing to Roger Federer in 2006 and compatriot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2012. “I started very slow, but Rafa put me under pressure from the first point and I had not played any matches like this, this week. It was tough to adjust.”