Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal reacts after beating Gael Monfils to win the Monte Carlo Masters title for a ninth time. Getty Images

In his 100th tour-level final, Rafael Nadal claimed his 28th Masters 1000 title to join Novak Djokovic as the most successful man of all time in the nine most prestigious events on the men’s ATP Tour. In a ferocious battle with French 13th seed Gael Monfils, Nadal proved the stronger over three sets to win 7-5 5-7 6-0 in two hours and 46 minutes to seal his ninth title at the Monte Carlo Masters.

Playing for his first Masters 1000 crown in close to two years, Nadal showed plenty of glimpses of the player who won eight straight titles in Monte Carlo between 2005 and 2012 and earned the moniker “the King of Clay.” But he was also facing a man playing, at the age of 29, arguably the best tennis of his career.

The opening set, in particular, included some punishing rallies, with Monfils at times appearing as if he would need an oxygen tank brought onto the court in order to continue. It was no surprise, then, that punctuating the scintillating, marathon rallies, where both men displayed an ability to turn incredible defense into searing winners, were spells of unforced errors. Those particularly afflicted Monfils, who twice fought back from a break down in the first set only to gift the advantage right back, and, after saving four set points, eventually drop the set with a double fault.

The quality level, as was to be expected, dropped off to a degree in the second set. Yet confounding expectations having looked out on his feet at the end of a 75-minute first set, Monfils continued to take the fight to the world No. 5.

The Frenchman, ditching the showman style that has often made it appear that he was more interested in pulling off stunning retrievals at the back of the court rather actually winning the point, was pummeling big strokes off both sides. In contrast, Nadal’s game dropped off, showing some of the vulnerability that had meant him going without a title for eight months. Even though the Spaniard twice fought back from a break down, Monfils made his lead count at the third time of asking, holding to level up an engrossing final.

His victory delayed, Nadal was in no mood to let it slip completely from his grasp. With renewed purpose and the gift of two double faults from a clearly flagging opponent, Nadal grabbed an immediate break to assume control of the final set. It was a grip that this time he was not prepared to relinquish, continuing his momentum to blitz Monfils en route to a victory that was sealed with a supreme forehand down the line.

As well as further enhancing his already legendary legacy, the victory gives Nadal the perfect start to the European clay-court season. It has been a torrid start to the year for the man from Mallorca, but, having beaten French Open champions Stan Wawrinka and world No. 2 Andy Murray earlier in the week, he will now surely head forward in his favorite time of the tennis calendar with renewed confidence. And if he can continue to replicate these performances then some of his old aura may well return heading into Roland Garros and his attempt to wrestle back the French Open crown and claim an unprecedented 10th title.