(Reuters) - Rafa Nadal began his year in perfect fashion with a three-set victory over Frenchman Gael Monfils in the Qatar Open in Doha on Saturday as he warms up for this month's Australian Open.
Spain's world number one put down an ominous marker for the year's first grand slam by claiming his 61st career title with a 6-1 6-7(5) 6-2 win over flamboyant Monfils in the desert city.
The triumph took Nadal past American Andre Agassi into eighth spot on the all-time list of ATP Tour title winners and helped him extend his lead at the top of the world rankings over Novak Djokovic who opted not to play this week.
"Every victory is important and the title today means a lot to me. It is the first time in my career that I am able to start the season with a victory. That's always important," Nadal said after adding Qatar to his long list of successful venues.
Monfils's two career wins over Nadal were in Doha in 2009 and 2012 but, apart from the second set, he was outmuscled by the Spaniard who moved smoothly on the hard court and was far too rugged.
"Rafa put pressure on me from the first point," said Monfils. "He was very aggressive from the first game and it was tougher for me to adjust."
Nadal is now one title behind Argentine Guillermo Vilas and closing in on the 64 of Sweden's Bjorn Borg and American Pete Sampras, who are joint fifth on the all-time list.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ken Ferris)