Rafael Nadal starts 2014 in winning style with his first Doha title
World No1 Rafael Nadal beats Gael Monfils 6-1 6-7 (5) 6-2 to win the Qatar Open in Doha
For a man who came into the New Year as world No1 on the back of 10 titles from 14 finals during his truncated 2013, it seemed remarkable that Rafael Nadal arrived at his 15th final in the space of a year this week having never won a title ahead of the Australian Open.
Indeed, in his dozen years as a pro, Nadal had reached a final at one of the five warm-up ATP 250 events just three times: in Auckland in 2004, in Chennai in 2008 and in Doha in 2010. He won none of them. Now he was in a fourth, again in Doha, but he had been made to fight at every turn.
He sealed his opener against Lukas Rosol in a 9-7 tie-break, then dropped a set to Tobias Kamke in the second round, and was pushed hard by the only seeded player he faced in the tournament, Ernests Gulbis.
The Spaniard’s semi-final against the 162-ranked qualifier Peter Gojowczyk was expected to be an altogether easier affair. The German had won just one tour-level match before this week, in the first round of last year’s US Open, yet he took the first set from Nadal before the Spaniard surged back to take the match.
With all the other top seeds falling before the quarter-finals—David Ferrer, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet—this now proved to be Nadal’s best chance to break that pre-Australia duck.
But his final opponent, former top-10 player Gael Monfils, had returned to form from injury last season, rising from 119 in May to a current 31. He had also scored both his two wins over Nadal in Doha.
However, despite a glittering performance in his previous two matches, each won in well under an hour, Monfils seemed to lack confidence in the opening stages of this, his third, Doha final. Playing safely from behind the baseline, he paid the price, went down 15-40, and finished with a double fault.
He was soon staring 0-3, 0-30 in the face, with Nadal looking sharper than at any time in the tournament. The top seed rushed into the net to bring up another break point and drew the latest in a string of errors from Monfils for a 4-0 lead.
A sign of Nadal’s burgeoning confidence showed in the fifth game with a half-volley winning forehand off the baseline, followed by an ace, and even a winning volley finish. Serving at 0-5, Monfils finally found some first serves and got on the scoreboard with an ace, but after just 23 minutes, Nadal served out his best set of tennis this week to love, 6-1. Monfils looked entirely befuddled, and no wonder: He had notched up 10 unforced errors to Nadal’s two.
Monfils, though, opened the second set with a furrow of concentration in his brow, and the extra focus worked: Four big serves and a love hold. That in turn energized his body language, and he managed to double the Nadal error rate in the Spaniard’s first service game. On break point, Nadal overhit a forehand to give Monfils a 2-0 lead.
The third game was still more impressive from Monfils, a powerhouse of serving to lead 3-0 with 12 of the 15 points in the set thus far. But if anything is guaranteed to inspire Nadal, it is a challenge, and he responded with a love hold and then worked two break points.
Monfils held off this first test with two aces and a blistering off-forehand winner to keep the advantage, but serving at 4-1 and 40-15, he suddenly found himself at break point as Nadal pounded his forehand, one at almost 100mph, to alternating corners. Sure enough, Nadal broke to level the set, backed it up with a love hold, and they edged to a tie-break.
Now the crowds cheered on Monfils as he threw in his first drop shot, and then rushed in for a volley to take a 4-2 advantage. Receiving at 6-3, he took a tumble but regained his composure in time to serve out the set with an ace, 7-5.
Inexplicably, Monfils then reverted to his baseline play at the start of the third set, a losing ploy against the heavy side-to-side power of Nadal. Monfils lost a 28-shot rally to face two quick break points, but a switch back to touch play from the Frenchman drew some frustrated shots from Nadal and a hold.
However, the pattern was set. Nadal kept Monfils pinned three metres behind the baseline for much of the time and broke in the fourth game. More variety of shot from Monfils turned the tables to earn four break-back points, and he would have earned a fifth had he stopped play to challenge a Nadal ball that landed outside the baseline, but the Spaniard survived. He then held to love for a 5-2 lead and charged through Monfils’ final service game to break for the title, 6-2.
This win was special in being Nadal’s first in Doha, his first before the Australian Open and for taking him past Andre Agassi to hold eighth place in the list of Open era title-winners. It also reinforced the prowess that Nadal showed on hard courts during 2013, where he went unbeaten outdoors through three Masters and the US Open. His five match-wins in Doha take him to 600 on outdoor hard-courts—and this from the ‘king of clay’.
It has thus thrown down the gauntlet for the year’s first Grand Slam in a week’s time, and eyes will quickly turn to the other side of the globe to watch the progress of Nadal’s arch rival of the last decade, Roger Federer.
He, too, was preparing to play for a first title in his debut appearance in Brisbane. And he, like Nadal, would climb the Open era titles league table: Should he win a 78th title, he would overtake John McEnroe, leaving just Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl ahead of him.
Federer reached his landmark Brisbane final via his first three-setter of the tournament against No8 seed Jeremy Chardy, a win that earned him a tilt at an even older rival than Nadal, fellow family man and 32-year-old, Lleyton Hewitt.