For over two hours today in Monte Carlo, Rafael Nadal and Gael Monfils battled to a stalemate. The supremely athletic and highly entertaining Frenchman matched the King of Clay shot for shot, game for game, and offensive blow for defensive dig. After two sets, the contest was even.
As the first to serve in the third set, which would determine the championship of this Masters 1000 event, Nadal told himself he needed raise his level of aggression and boss the rallies with his blistering forehand. Stepping to the line, Nadal landed his first serve and proceeded to take control of the set and the match.
Having chased down and returned a staggering number of Nadal’s punishing shots through two exhausting sets, Monfils ran out of steam. Unable to repel Nadal’s persistent attacks, Monfils conceded the third set in a “bagel” — by a score of 6-0.
In his 100th career final, Nadal won his 68th title, his 48th title on clay, his 28th Masters 1000 title, and his record ninth title in Monte Carlo.
Five quick thoughts about the week’s events:
Rafael Nadal’s game, decision making, problem solving, physical endurance, and — most importantly for him — mental strength are in very good shape.
Nadal sliced through a brutally tough draw in Monte Carlo with aplomb. After an opening win over Britain’s #2 player, Aljaz Bedene, Nadal:
- Defeated rising star Dominic Thiem in straight sets, saving 15 of the 17 break points he faced.
- Rolled over current French Open champion Stan Wawrinka 6-1 6-4.
- Came back after dropping the first set to outlast World #2 Andy Murray in a dogfight.
- Prevailed over the suffocating defense of a completely dialed-in Gael Monfils.
Nadal has suffered in recent years from physical disability and, more recently, severe confidence problems. Judging from this week’s performances, most of Nadal’s problems are in the past.
Gael Monfils could be a contender this year at the French Open.
Long acknowledged to be one of the most athletically gifted players on tour, the 29-year-old Monfils has delivered inconsistent results over his career, in part because he has been prone to injury, and in part because of a lack of discipline, or a tendency to go on mental walkabout during matches.
In Monte Carlo, Monfils demonstrated that dedication, focus, and concentration inspired by his new coach, Mikael Tilstrom, are bearing fruit. The Frenchman reached the final without dropping a set and offered Nadal a stiff challenge for two hard-fought sets.
If Monfils can maintain his form, he could reach at least the final eight at the French Open.
Novak Djokovic is not infallible.
As Nadal observed about Djokovic in the week before the Monte Carlo event, “winning is tiring.”
Djokovic arrived in Monte Carlo — his place of residence — having won five titles in 2016 and 28 of the 29 matches he had contested. During his first match in the Principality, perhaps showing weariness consequent to having reached the final of nearly every tournament he has played this year, Djokovic fell to the World #53 player, 22-year-old Czech Jiri Vesely.
Whether that loss will turn out to have been a minor speedbump and the week’s rest an unexpected boon — or whether Monte Carlo will mark the start of a diminution of Djokovic’s fortunes — remains to be seen.
The most engaging matches don’t always involve the top players.
The early rounds at Monte Carlo boasted several thrillers between players ranked in the teens through the fifties. World #17 Roberto Bautista Agut outlasted #33 Jeremy Chardy in three tight sets. World #50 Marcel Granollers edged past #51 Alexander Zverev in two-and-a-half hours under the lights and in the rain. World #13 David Goffin fought off match points to defeat the ever-dangerous Fernando Verdasco.
Even when headline-makers are nowhere to be seen, there is no lack of drama on the court. Matches involving relative unknowns can be terrifically entertaining.
The doubles world has a new pair of stars.
As the 37-year-old twins Bob and Mike Bryan relinquish their hold on the world of men’s doubles, an unassuming French pair, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, have made a strong case to assume the Bryans’ mantle. In the last six week, Mahut and Herbert have won three Masters 1000 doubles titles on hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami and on clay in Monte Carlo.
No team except the Bryans has won Indian Wells, Miami, and Monte Carlo in succession in recent years.
The 34-year-old Mahut — perhaps better known as the loser of the three-day-long marathon match against John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010 — and the 25-year-old Herbert are as engaging and likable as they are skillful on the court.
As men’s doubles are on the verge of losing their best-known stars, Mahut and Herbert offer the sport a welcome new attraction.
For your enjoyment, a compendium of the tournament’s most virtuosic points:
Coming up next week are tournaments in Barcelona and Bucharest.
The French Open begins in five weeks.