Spain’s Rafael Nadal took his season title total to nine as he beat American John Isner 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (7-3) on Sunday to win the Cincinnati Masters for the first time and take back the world number two ranking.
The women’s final took two and a half hours of momentum shifts, with Victoria Azarenka defeating Serena Williams 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (8-6).
Williams still owns a 12-3 lead in their overall series but has lost to her world number two Belarus rival twice this season.
The American double-faulted to yield a match point in the final-set tie-breaker, but Azarenka could not convert.
It took the European one more chance to go through to her 17th career title.
Azarenka had played sporadically over the past months due to injuries suffered at both Wimbledon and this month in California.
“I’m really excited to be back playing,” said the winner, whose victory added an element of suspence to the upcoming US Open.
“The last month was really tough. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It was a tough match and we both fought really hard. It was an incredible week for me.” The epic began as Azarneka put over two double-faults and looked to be out of it after losing the first set in 26 minutes.
Nadal, winner of back-to-back hard court trophies for the first time in his career after following up his Montreal title a week ago, needed just under two hours to beat the big-serving Isner, playing for the second time in a Masters 1000 final.
Nadal will stand behind Novak Djokovic in the ATP list when the US Open starts in eight days, with the 27-year-old on fire heading into the season’s final grand slam.
“This is amazing, I’m very happy for everything,” said Nadal. “I have never played well here, this is the first time that I felt like I was.
“John had an amazing week, beating three tough unbelievable opponents (from the ranking top 10). I’m sorry for today, but if with that serve and that forehand I’m sure you will have lots of chance to win an event like this.” Nadal becomes the first left-hander to win the event since Guy Forget in 1991 and the first Spaniard since his mentor Carlos Moya 11 years ago.
Nadal now owns 26 Masters 1000 titles and heads into the Open as a major favourite. His victory earned a 59th career trophy and a 14th on hard court.
The Spaniard remains undefeated this season on hard court after collecting previous Masters titles on the surface at Indian Wells in March and Montreal. He improved to 53-3 in 2013.
Nadal said he’s not yet looking ahead to New York, preferring to savour the current moment.
“This title is very important for me, the Open is still a week away. This is the time to enjoy this one. In a few days I’ll start thinking about the Open.” Nadal never had a break point against the mighty Isner serve, which produced a modest 11 aces in the face of elite competition. The Spaniard won the 62-minute first set on his third set point after denying Isner three of his own.
Nadal took charge in the second-set tiebreaker as he ran out a 5-1 lead and earned three match points on Isner’s forehand to the net before converting on the first opportunity.
“I never had a chance at a break point, it’s so tough to break his serve,” said the winner. “I was totally focused in every moment on holding my serve and trying not to give him opportunities.” Isner, who returns an American into the ranking top 20, also lost the Masters final at Indian Wells last year.
He had beaten a trio of top elites this week — number one Djokovic in the quarter-finals, Juan Del Potro and Frenchman Richard Gasquet — but was stopped cold my Nadal.
“I knew I had to come to day and play well,” said the finalist. “Thought I did but unfortunately I ran into one of the greatest players ever to play the game.
“Rafa’s an incredible champion.” Isner feels strong going to New York after playing this week at home in a tune-up at Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“I feel great, this is the toughest tennis event in the world. The draw is smaller than a grand slam and everyone is inside the top 50.
“I can hold my head high when I reflect on this tournament.”