CINCINNATI, Ohio (AFP) - Rafael Nadal won the Cincinnati Masters for the first time on Sunday, his ninth title of 2013 lifting him to number two in the world and stamping him a US Open favorite.
The fourth-seeded Spaniard, whose season didn't start until February when he returned from a seven-month injury absence, proved again the eight-time French Open champion is back in peak form after his shock first round exit at Wimbledon.
He beat unseeded American John Isner 7-6 (10/8), 7-6 (7/3) to add the Cincinnati crown to the Montreal Masters title he won a week before, his first ever back-to-back hardcourt trophies.
Nadal said that winning back-to-back Masters 1000 titles was uniquely demanding.
"We play from the first round against the best players in the world, the top 50 players. In other tournaments, you can have good draws, here you cannot.
"Winning back to back tournaments is difficult because the courts are not exactly the same, the weather conditions are not exactly the same.
"You test your body and your tennis to the limit. You need to be 100 per cent focused during the two weeks and playing every day." However, Nadal wasn't ready to say his two wins in as many weeks was a sign of things to come at the US Open, the last Grand Slam of the season that starts a week from Monday on the hardcourts of Flushing Meadows.
"The only thing this means is I'm playing well and hopefully I can continue playing well in the US Open in a week," said Nadal, who is unbeaten on hardcourts in 2013 having also lifted the title at Indian Wells in March.
"That's my goal. I'm going to rest for two days. I'm going to practice on Wednesday for the first time in New York, and I'm going to work hard during the first few days to be ready for that." Nadal said he'd savor his Cincinnati crown for itself, rather than as a Grand Slam warm-up.
"This is amazing, I'm very happy for everything," said Nadal, who took his tally of Masters 1000 titles to 26.
Fourteen of the clay-bred Spaniard's 59 trophies have come on hardcourts, but he had never won on the fast courts of Cincinnati.
He is the first Spaniard to win in Cincinnati since Carlos Moya 11 years ago.
"I have never played well here, this is the first time that I felt like I have," he said.
Nadal didn't muster a single break point against the big-serving Isner. But he saved the three he faced and came through in the tiebreakers to seal the victory in one hour and 54 minutes.
Isner produced 11 aces, a minor total by his usual standards.
"I knew I had to come today and play well," said Isner, whose run to the final saw him beat world number one Novak Djokovic and will see him return to the top 20 in the rankings at 14th.
"I thought I did but unfortunately I ran into one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Rafa's an incredible champion." Nadal, who has now won all four career meetings with Isner, won the first set on his third opportunity - after denying Isner three set-point chances.
Nadal sprinted away in the second-set decider, taking a 5-1 lead and earning three match points from his opponent's forehand error.
"I never had a chance at a break point, it's so tough to break his serve. I had to be focused in every moment on holding my serve and trying not to give him opportunities," Nadal said.
Despite the defeat, Isner was upbeat about his game.
"This is the toughest tennis event in the world. The draw is smaller than a Grand Slam and everyone is inside the top 50."