Even modest Nadal impressed by record 31st Masters title

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates winning the men's singles final match of the Monte Carlo Tennis Masters tournament against Japan's Kei Nishikori in two sets, 6-3, 6-2, in Monaco, Sunday April 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
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 AP Sports Writer

MONACO (AP) — Usually modest about his achievements, Rafael Nadal allowed himself a moment to appreciate his record 31st Masters title on Sunday. Nadal was at his dominant best against Kei Nishikori, beating him 6-3, 6-2 in the Monte Carlo Masters final to become the first man in the Open era to win the same title 11 times. “It’s unbelievable,” Nadal said, pausing to take it in. “It’s something difficult to imagine.” A 10th win in 12 matches against Nishikori wasn’t, however, even when the Japanese player broke him for a 2-1 lead early on. Nadal moved one ahead of rival Novak Djokovic for career Masters titles.

Nadal’s first Monte Carlo title came as a scraggly-haired 18-year-old in 2005. But Nadal had already burst onto the scene in astonishing fashion at this sun-soaked Mediterranean venue two years earlier, beating French Open champion Albert Costa in the second round. It was the start of a remarkable ascendancy for Nadal in becoming the best clay-court player of all time, underlined by more than 50 titles on his favorite surface and including 10 French Opens, both of them records. The fire still burns as strongly for Nadal.

“These kind of things not going to happen forever. So (I) just try to play with the full passion and with the full energy and concentration, full love for the sport until I can,” the 31-year-old Nadal said. “I know the day to say goodbye is closer than 10 years ago.” Given how easily he won this tournament, without dropping a set, that parting moment seems a long way off yet. His level of perfection is something for others to worry about. After his semifinal, he rushed to an outside practice court to perfect his forehand. “I was just looking to relax,” Nadal said. “To hit some balls hard and to move the arm without nerves.”

Nadal’s win also ensured the Spaniard keeps his top ranking ahead of Roger Federer, as well as taking him to 76 career titles. “To put another trophy in my museum, in my academy, is going to be something great,” Nadal said. “This is one of the most important ones in terms of (my) personal feeling.” Nishikori was chasing a first Masters title, but the Japanese player took 11 minutes to hold for 1-1. “I knew it was going to be tough,” said Nishikori, who complained of tiredness. “My legs were very heavy today, playing three sets (for) three days in a row (before the final). It wasn’t easy physically.”

Nadal won on his first match point with a stinging backhand winner, thrust both hands into the air and then jogged over to offer Nishikori a sympathetic hug. Nishikori is still working his way back to form and full fitness, after missing the 2017 U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open because of a torn tendon in his right wrist. “It was a great week for me, I had an injury and couldn’t play for a long time,” said Nishikori, who is ranked 36. He can take encouragement from beating Tomas Berdych — the 2015 runner-up here — and Australian Open runner-up Marin Cilic on the way to the final.

Nadal has not dropped a set in seven matches since coming back from a recurrence of a right hip injury that forced him to abandon during the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Cilic. The injury relapse subsequently forced him out of the Mexico Open and Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, but Nadal appears to be back to his ruthless and rapid best on clay. Now he has his sights firmly set on an 11th title at Barcelona next week, and then an 11th French Open title at Roland Garros.