MONACO (AP) — Rafael Nadal overcame a sloppy performance on his serve to beat Frenchman Gael Monfils 7-5, 5-7, 6-0 on Sunday and win the Monte Carlo Masters for the ninth time.
This was the Spaniard’s first tournament win in Monte Carlo since winning the last of his eight straight titles there in 2012. It is also the record-equaling 28th Masters title for Nadal, bringing him alongside top-ranked Novak Djokovic.
Nadal sank to his knees after sealing victory with a brilliant forehand winner. It took him 2 hours, 46 minutes to finally see off Monfils, who had never won a set against Nadal on clay and lost 11 of their 13 previous matches.
The fifth-seeded Nadal dropped his serve five times against the 13th-seeded Monfils in a topsy-turvy encounter in which they conceded 34 break-point chances between them.
Playing in his 100th career final, Nadal clinched his 68th title, his first this year and his first since winning on clay at Hamburg last August. It was his first Masters win since the Madrid Masters in 2014 and his biggest trophy success since his last French Open title later the same year.
Nadal’s previous final was in January, where he was routed by Djokovic in Doha.
But with Djokovic a surprise second-round loser here, Nadal’s toughest opponent was out of the way and, in a contest between two 29-year-olds with differing career trajectories, Monfils was rank outsider here.
Since they first played each other 11 years ago, Nadal has won 14 Grand Slams and Monfils has never even won a Masters title.
In their previous four contests on clay, Monfils had lost in straight sets and never taken more than three games off Nadal, dating back to their first-ever career encounter here in the second round in 2005.
That was the year of Nadal’s first win and, coming into this match, he had only lost a total of five sets in nine previous finals — two of those in losing to Djokovic three years ago.
At times it seemed Monfils could cause a big upset, hitting some superb winners from sometimes incredible angles and with brutal strength.
But instead it was a 19th defeat in 24 finals and a third in a Masters final, having lost twice in Paris.
He will regret his 51 unforced errors, considering Nadal made 36 and double-faulted four times.
But Monfils double-faulted seven times and collapsed completely in the third set, with Nadal breaking him three further times to make it eight overall in the match.
After his brilliant winning shot on his first match point, Nadal slid on his knees, leant back and soaked up the win for several moments.
With six weeks to go until the French Open in Paris, Nadal will already have one eye on a 10th title at Roland Garros.
But he will need to sort out his serve.
Even in the third round against Austrian Dominic Thiem, Nadal faced 17 break points, saving 15, and he won only 29 percent of points on his second serve against Monfils — including a dismal 17 percent in the second set.
Better opponents would have made Nadal pay.
After the end of the second set, Nadal looked haggard, sweat pouring off his face despite considerably cooler conditions than during the rest of the sun-drenched week. But he was never pushed in a third set lasting just 30 minutes.
Nadal missed a chance to serve out the first set at 5-3 up but double-faulted as Monfils pulled back before holding for 5-5 in the next game — which featured one staggering 33-shot rally.
A rare comfortable hold from Nadal put him 6-5 up, leaving Monfils serving to stay in the set. Instead, he was on the back foot, saving four sets points before a double fault gave Nadal the opener.
Monfils broke Nadal to lead 2-1 in the second set when Nadal sent another errant forehand into the net and then rallied from 0-40 down to hold for 3-1.
Playing with great athleticism, Monfils hit an incredible leaping forehand down the line to force another chance on Nadal’s serve.
But Nadal held and broke Monfils to love in the next game to level at 3-3.
Monfils broke him again with a brilliant forehand winner that landed right on the line for 4-3, only for Nadal to break him for 4-4.
That second set of hugely entertaining yet erratic tennis eventually went to Monfis, but the effort spent clawing his way back had sapped his strength.