Despite having been stopped cold twice by Gael Monfils at this same tournament before, Rafael Nadal triumphed in three sets over the Frenchman today, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, to capture his 61st career title—and his first at the Qatar Open.
The first set was over in 23 minutes, a mere eye-blink in Nadal time. It was a more or less unmitigated disaster for Monfils, who double-faulted twice to be broken to 0-2, was broken again for 0-4 after an errant forehand, and looked very much like the man whose record in ATP finals coming into this match stood at 4-15. Nadal, by contrast, was sharp, executing simple plays beautifully, pouncing on anything short, and producing eight winners for two unforced errors, including an exquisite curling, half-volleyed forehand pass down the line for 4-0.
Aletdown of some sort was perhaps inevitable after such a dominant first set, and it arrived quickly. A cluster of errant forehands saw Monfils break to lead 1-0, and the world No. 31's level rose sharply. He stepped in closer to the baseline to take away some of Nadal's time, and hit with more heavy spin to set himself up for his trademark flat winners hammered from deep.
After saving two break points with big serves at 3-1, Monfils was leading 40-15 at 4-2 before an abrupt and effortless injection of pace on Nadal's forehand got him into the game. The world No. 1 broke, as Monfils suddenly seemed to lose confidence or concentration; perhaps both.
But recovering quickly for an exchange of rapid holds, it was Monfils who took the initiative in the tiebreaker. At 2-3, Nadal serving, Monfils worked his way into the net and forced a defensive lob long from Nadal. It was a slender advantage, but not even crashing into a camera position could disturb Monfils' hold on the proceedings, and he took the second set with an ace.
Monfils' headstrong play continued, for a time. He went on to save two break points in his first service game of the final set, then took a 0-30 advantage on Nadal's serve at 1-1, reading a body blast beautifully and producing a sweet backhand passing shot. As quickly as his purple patch had arrived, however, it seemed to desert Monfils, as he reverted to the impatient play which characterized his first-set performance, going for winners far too early in a quest for quick points. Nadal held, then earned the decisive break to lead 3-1.
Monfils had one last real chance to get back into the match, earning 0-40 as Nadal served to consolidate that break, but he hit back to his opponent instead of into space on his best opportunity. Then, he missed a chance to stop a rally and challenge a ball he correctly believed to be out, instead of waiting for the call.
Nadal's steadier play and surer aggressive instincts began to pay dividends once again. Throughout the match, he won the battle of court-positioning, and although Monfils' ability to produce winners from unlikely positions temporarily redressed the balance in the second set, Nadal's superior tactics and more consistent execution swung the third set decisively in his favor. With Monfils serving at 2-5, a dominant Nadal hustled him into repeated errors, and then took his second championship point to start his 2014 season with a title.