Nearing his 30th birthday, Rafael Nadal is suggesting he might yet rewind the clock to his glory days.
He made an emphatic statement for the clay court season on Sunday by winning his first Masters series event in nearly two years.
The Spaniard followed up his win over Andy Murray by powering past athletic Frenchman Gael Monfils in a deciding set to win the Monte Carlo Open final 7-5, 5-7, 6-0 in two-and-three-quarter hours.
Capitalising on successive double faults early in the deciding set from Monfils — who has a poor record in finals — Nadal surged to his ninth career title in Monaco.
While these are early days in the long build-up to the French Open, it has been a hugely encouraging week for Nadal after persistent injuries and the confidence crises of 2015.
Aside from anything, Novak Djokovic showed he is human by losing in the second round, just when he was looking unbeatable.
With Masters events in Madrid and Rome to come before Roland Garros, there is much that can happen, but it appears less like being a single-issue story involving whether or not Djokovic can break his duck in Paris.
The world No 1’s early exit in Monaco makes it more likely he will play in both Madrid and Rome, having skipped the former last year. He and Nadal are back level on 28 career Masters titles after the Serb had threatened to pull ahead.
This was Nadal’s 68th title in all, and one that always looked likely in the third set, given the suspect stamina of the telescopically-limbed Monfils.
There were errors aplenty on both sides but Monfils could not maintain his second-set comeback, which saw him break the Nadal serve an incredible five times.
This is still not the Nadal of around four years ago, who would sweep all before him on clay, but the more he wins on it, the more like his old self he will become.
He finished off the match with a brilliant running forehand and sank to his knees to savour the moment.
‘This is a special place for me,’ he said of a venue where he has won as often as at Roland Garros. Both suit him perfectly, being relatively quick with large playing areas around the court.
‘It’s been a very important week for me. I feel much better in myself than the year before. You need to confirm that with results and the victory here confirms that I am better.
‘It has been sometime without winning a big tournament so I am enjoying this moment. It’s an emotional moment after some tough times.’