He's Back! Monfils Caps Return With Doha Title
If 2017 was a struggle, Gael Monfils is back in business in the new year.
The Frenchman rode a dominant serving display and dogged defence in claiming the title at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open on Saturday. Monfils raced to his seventh ATP World Tour crown, downing #NextGenATP Andrey Rublev 6-2, 6-3 in 61 minutes.
Appearing in his fourth final in Doha, Monfils finally broke through for his first tournament title. Runner-up in 2006 (l. t Federer), 2012 (l. to Tsonga) and 2014 (l. to Nadal), it was fourth time lucky for the Frenchman. He fired a total of 29 winners while striking only 10 unforced errors.
One year after making his debut appearance at the Nitto ATP Finals, Monfils saw his year-end position in the ATP Rankings slip to No. 46 as he struggled with his fitness in 2017. The 31-year-old was forced to withdraw from six tournaments with various ailments and concluded his season after the US Open, citing a right knee injury.
But Monfils has rediscovered his top form in the opening week of 2018. The Mikael Tillstrom pupil fought for a pair of three-set victories to open the tournament, defeating Paolo Lorenzi and Jan-Lennard Struff, before ousting Peter Gojowczyk in the quarter-finals. A semi-final walkover over top seed Dominic Thiem provided ample rest for the Frenchman, who was at his ruthless best in the championship.
"I'm very happy," said Monfils. "I like this tournament so much. I always come back and I finally got it. So I'm just very happy and very proud.
"It's been a while. I was waiting for that moment to get back in shape. In 2016, I was almost on my top and I had a very good year, finishing at No. 6. I couldn't really defend my chances in 2017. I had a long rest and came back strong in 2018, which was a goal. I wouldn't say I was expecting to win the first tournament, but I'm more than happy that I did."
A determined Monfils was a man on a mission on a brisk Saturday evening in the Qatar capital. He opened the match with an ace and never looked back, breaking Rublev on three occasions. Playing well behind the baseline during rallies (averaging nearly three metres), he executed his gameplan brilliantly, utilising his agility to make the 20-year-old strike the extra ball. A rattled Rublev looked to hit through the Monfils defensive wall, with little success.
The Frenchman earned the opening break for 3-1 after a 24-shot rally and notched the first set after just 40 minutes. Another early break to open the second set would prove to be decisive for Monfils, as he forced a forehand error from Rublev. The Russian was unable to capitalise on two break points, as Monfils held his nerve to the finish line. A service winner would secure the victory after one hour and one minute.
The French contingent is flying to open the 2018 season, as Monfils joined Pune titlist Gilles Simon as ATP World Tour winners. In addition, Monfils is the third French champion in Doha in the past seven years, joining fellow stalwarts Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2012) and Richard Gasquet (2013). Projected to return to the Top 40, he earns 250 ATP Rankings points and $218,180 in prize money.
Rublev, meanwhile, was appearing in his first tournament since finishing runner-up at the Next Gen ATP Finals (l. to Chung) in November. Despite the loss, the Russian is projected to rise to a career-high No. 32 in the ATP Rankings. Playing the best tennis of his young career, he made an early statement in his bid to return to Milan. It marked his second ATP World Tour final, having lifted his maiden trophy in Umag last year.
"I think I was completely tired today," Rublev said. "You can see that even my shots were not the same energy like previous matches. I was making a lot of mistakes, a lot of wrong shots. You can see even I was really slow today on the court.
"Every time he was moving me to one side and most of the time it was almost over, or if I could catch one point then he was always killing me with the second. Of course I'm disappointed. It's always tough to lose, especially in the final. Sometimes it's even tougher to recover when you lose in the final than when you lose some semi-finals or first rounds.
"But of course it was great week for me. It's a great start for me. I didn't expect that I'm going to be in the finals, which is great. I'm of course I'm happy to be in the final. I'm happy with my result this week. And I hope and I wish I can be more consistent. I hope it's not going to be only one week like this."