Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal’s Australian Open preparations remain on track after he beat American Maxime Cressy 7-6 (8/6), 6-3 in the final of the Melbourne Summer Set on Sunday.

Nadal decided to play the lower level tournament to get some match practice after missing much of 2021 with injury and Covid-19.

He has not been totally fluent this week and was pushed hard by the American qualifier, but Nadal had too much experience for the 24-year-old serve-volleyer.

It was Nadal’s 89th title on the ATP tour and the win ensures he has won at least one singles crown every year for the past 19 years.

Nadal said that, while he was not in perfect shape, he was happy with his form so far.

“Exactly where I would like to be is being 100 percent healthy from last year, playing until the end of the season, and with not having come back after five, six months away from competition,” he said.

“So of course I am not exactly the place that I want to be.

“But I am very happy. If we put everything together and analyse all the things that I went through the last five months, including the Covid, of course I am happy.

“I think my practices have been much better than my level of tennis in the competition, but in some way that’s very positive.

“The only thing that I need is to stay healthy and spend time on court, in official matches.”

Cressy, who had to win through two rounds of qualifying just to make the main draw, started nervously but became more confident as the match wore on.

The American had a set point in the tiebreak but could not convert and, once Nadal claimed the first set, the final result was almost inevitable.

Nadal will be aiming to break the record for most Grand Slam singles titles at this month’s Australian Open.

He is currently tied on 20 titles with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, but with Federer injured and Djokovic’s presence in doubt because of visa issues, Nadal has a chance to go one ahead of his great rivals.

Nadal was playing his first tournament since August after injury and Covid.

He said while he was sick he could not get out of bed for days, but once he began to recover he had no doubt he would come to Australia to try to win his second title at Melbourne Park.

“There have been some very challenging moments, and I have been working very hard even in the very tough moments,” Nadal said.

“I am quite satisfied the way that I approached all these very challenging months in terms of attitude, in terms of positive spirit and in terms of passion to try to be back.

“This title helps to keep going, and it’s of course just the beginning.”

Halep back to winning ways

A fit-again Simona Halep stormed to her first title in 16 months when she downed Russian Veronika Kudermetova to clinch the Melbourne Summer Set crown Sunday in a timely return to form, saying she was confident and feeling good.

The two-time Grand Slam champion used all of her big-match experience to pull through 6-2, 6-3 at the Rod Laver Arena in the ideal preparation for the Australian Open, which starts January 17.

There were two simultaneous WTA events as part of the Melbourne Summer Set, with Amanda Anisimova battling past Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich 7-5, 1-6, 6-4 to win the other.

It was the 20-year-old American’s second WTA Tour crown, as she too heads into the opening Grand Slam of the year full of confidence.

Former world number one Halep had not landed any silverware since Rome in September 2020, due largely to a calf tear that scuttled her mid-season in 2021 and saw her briefly fall outside the top 20 for the first time since 2013.

But she is back to full fitness and proved too good for the 32st-ranked Kudermetova to claim her 23rd career title.

“Let’s keep winning because I like this feeling,” said 20th-ranked Halep, who made the final at the 2018 Australian Open, losing to Caroline Wozniacki.

“The body is great. I feel good. I had a tough five matches, and my body is good. I don’t feel that tired.

“Physically I’m in the right place. Confidence is growing. I feel that I have the game to win matches.”

She had a shaky start and was broken on her second service game, but quickly settled down to draw errors from the Russian in the next game and break straight back.

Halep took complete charge to win the next four games and seal the set in 34 minutes.

But, as in the first set, she was again broken early by Kudermetova, who got a semi-final walkover after top seed Naomi Osaka withdrew with an abdominal injury.

Once more, the Romanian kept her cool to break back for 2-2, then broke again for 5-3, pumping her fists in delight before serving out for a comfortable victory.

- Good headspace -

Earlier, unseeded world number 78 Anisimova overcame a mid-match slump and treatment to her left leg to down Sasnovich for her second-ever WTA Tour crown.

Her previous one came at Bogota in 2019 as a 17-year-old, the youngest American to clinch a title since Serena Williams at Indian Wells in 1999.

“I’m in such a good headspace now after an incredibly tough year,” said Anisimova, who missed the Australian swing last year after testing positive for the coronavirus.

“It’s so good to start off the year in a good place and winning a title, I honestly couldn’t ask for any more.

“Hopefully I’ll have a good season and I’m really looking forward to playing in the Australian Open.”

A win appeared unlikely for the 2019 French Open semi-finalist when she lost the second set and went 3-0 down in the third, after getting treatment for a left upper leg issue.

But against the odds she battled back to deny qualifier Sasnovich her first title.

Canada clinch ATP Cup

Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime stormed through a gripping clash with Spanish star Roberto Bautista Agut for a massive victory that earned his country a maiden ATP Cup title on Sunday.

Their Sydney showdown followed Denis Shapovalov ending Pablo Carreno Busta’s winning start to the season 6-4, 6-3 to set the scene for a crunch second singles rubber.

World number 11 Auger-Aliassime beat third-ranked Alexander Zverev during the tournament and again showed his class to down 19th-ranked Bautista Agut 7-6 (7/3), 6-3 and seal the tournament for Canada.

The Novak Djokovic-led Serbia won the inaugural edition of the teams event in 2020, when the Rafael Nadal-led Spain also had to settle for second, with Daniil Medvedev’s Russia earning the title last year.

“The emotions are unbelievable, there is no better feeling than winning, we left everything out there,” said Auger-Aliassime.

“We lost our first four matches in this competition, but never stopped believing.

“We trust each other, Denis and I and everyone on the team, and I think that is very important. I’m super thrilled for everyone on the team, and of course myself.

“Spain is always difficult, they’ve been the best nation in the world for some time.”

Canada earned their place in the final after stunning defending champions Russia on Saturday.

They also beat Zverev’s Germany and Britain in group matches, bouncing back after crashing to the United States in their opening tie of the tournament.

It was a phenomenal effort from Auger-Aliassime who was heavily beaten by world number two Medvedev on Saturday, losing the last nine games in a row.

Both he and Bautista Agut started nervously at Ken Rosewall Arena and Auger-Aliassime was broken on his opening service game, but struck straight back to even it up.

They went with serve in an intense set of long rallies and the Spaniard came through a vitally important ninth game, saving three break points to stay alive.

It went to a tie-break with the Canadian playing an electric passing shot then a textbook forehand to storm 4-1 in front and held on to take the set in an enthralling 85 minutes.

- Full faith -

Auger-Aliassime, just 21, was serving beautifully and giving a tiring Bautista Agut few chances.

In contrast, he was putting pressure on the Spaniard’s serve, creating opportunities with his pounding forehands and it finally paid off with a break to go 5-3 clear.

With victory in sight, he served out for a deserved win that sparked joyous scenes as the team high-fived and hugged.

Both Spanish players had been in red-hot form, each winning all four of their singles encounters so far.

And Carreno Busta held a 4-1 advantage against Shapovalov going into their clash, winning their past three matches, including a five-set thriller in the 2020 US Open quarter-finals.

But the young world number 14 Canadian stepped up to emphatically gain revenge and put his country within one win of the title.

“It’s a huge win,” Shapovalov said after his match. “Full faith in Felix. He’s an amazing player and I think we have a good chance.”

The dynamic 22-year-old saved eight of the nine break points he faced to triumph.

The first game of the match, on Shapovalov’s serve, proved critical.

Carreno Busta had five break chances, which if converted could have swayed the contest in his favour. But Shapovalov hung on, going for his shots to secure the first set.

The Spaniard, down a set and a break in the second set, broke back for 3-4, but Shapovalov pummelled a forehand winner in the next game to retake the break before serving out his victory.

Monfils wins in Adelaide

Flamboyant Frenchman Gael Monfils claimed the 11th title of his career and his first in almost two years when he beat Russia’s Karen Khachanov at the Adelaide International on Sunday.

Monfils broke Khachanov once in each set to take the title 6-4, 6-4.

The 35-year-old Monfils has admitted he has struggled for motivation during the pandemic because he does not enjoy playing in empty stadiums.

As a result his ranking has dropped from inside the top 10 to its current position of 21.

But playing in front of a large crowd who had poured in to see local favourite Ashleigh Barty win the women’s title, Monfils lifted and had the edge on his Russian opponent.

Both men had no trouble holding serve throughout the match.

But at 4-5 in both sets, Khachanov seemed to let his nerves get the better of him and he dropped serve each time to hand the match to Monfils.

The two men will remain in Adelaide for next week’s second ATP tournament, where Monfils is top seed once again.

World number 29 Khachanov will be third seed, with the pair, who have been practising together this week, drawn to meet in the semi-finals.

(Reports collated from AFP)