Rafael Nadal is back, but not exactly as we knew him. On a misty Sunday afternoon on the Cote D’Azrur, in the 100th final of his career, the Spaniard won his first Masters title in nearly two years at the venue where he once ruled for eight years in a row – but he will surely know that beating Gaël Monfils in three sets of vastly contrasting quality has not totally restored his aura, even on clay.
This was his 28th Masters title, drawing alongside Novak Djokovic – but the first since Kei Nishikori retired injured when bossing him on the clay of Madrid two years ago. Nadal had not won a tournament since he beat Fabio Fognini in Hamburg last August, one of three for 2015, along with Stuttgart and Buenos Aires, mere trinkets compared to his 14 majors. This year, Nadal had lost in his only Tour final, as well as three semi-finals.
Still, five weeks before the French Open, the other fortress he must reclaim to convince the doubters as he closes on his 30th birthday, he will take his ninth Monte Carlo trophy home to Mallorca and maybe treasure it as much as the first one. In one way, it is his second breakthrough, a rebirth.
Nadal won 7-5, 5-7, 6-0, the final set taking half as long as the first. “Today was an unbelievably tough match,” the champion said courtside. “It’s been a special week for me, winning again at Monte Carlo.”
Intermittently, they were as bad as each other, then as brilliant as each other. There were 34 break points in two hours and 46 minutes – one nearly every five minutes. There was little between them in profligacy or stubbornness under pressure, Nadal saving eight of 13 (62%), Monfils 13 of 21 (also 62%). Nadal struck 36 unforced errors, Monfils 51.
But what a contrast in styles, strategy and demeanour. Nadal, the grinding, grimacing machine, oozed desperation, wrapped in his blanket of mental tics; Monfils – in the 24th final of his career – betrayed his emotional and physical exhaustion without artifice, smiling nervously at each wondrous winner, hands slipping to his knees after every crazy miss.
When Andy Murray observed after losing to him in the semi-finals on Saturday that “number in the world is still pretty good”, it had the whiff of faint praise for his old friend, unintended though it might have been. Nadal had to get his hands on a trophy.
The excitement under grey skies barely ebbed, as was expected of a match between someone as determined to re-establish himself as Nadal and a pure shot-maker such as Monfils, whose trust in his talent is total, but whose focus can wander like a bee on a summer’s day.
Nadal served for the first set at 5-3 only to watch, stunned, as a Monfils forehand drive skirted the paint for break point. Perhaps he had not regathered his concentration when he then double-faulted, but Monfils was grateful for it and saved three set points, the third in a 33-shot rally, to level at 5-all.
After rising from his stooped recovery, sweet dripping to the rain-kissed ochre in buckets, the Frenchman urged the crowd on in their raucous support. He needed their every cheer to save set point at 5-6, but they could do little about the double-fault, his fourth, that handed Nadal the first set. Three consecutive breaks of service for 4-all testified to the gathering chaos in the second set, but when Nadal held to love for 5-4, he began to resemble the Rafa of old. Monfils had to hold to keep the battle alive.
When Nadal hit long, it was the 29th break point in just over two hours and led to Monfils taking a set off him for the first time in four matches on clay. The third, however, was a capitulation. Nadal’s assurance and muscular brio returned, as he invested his forehand with top-spin for the set-up, power and precision for the rapier finish. When Monfils went up to serve at 0-5, he was spent, but in the best cause. Neither he nor Nadal could barely believe the final thrust, a running forehand return stuck in the very corner.
Earlier, the world doubles No 1 Jamie Murray admitted, “I served awful,” as he and his Brazilian partner, Bruno Soares, failed to build on a sound start against Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, who won for the 13th time in a row to become the first Frenchmen to lift this title in 30 years. They won 4-6, 6-0, 10-6, in a contest of many highs and a few lows that lasted only an hour and a quarter.