Rafael Nadal had his picture taken with the ball kids after winning the Rio Open on Sunday. - AFP
RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP): World number one Rafael Nadal shrugged off the injury concerns that wrecked his Australian Open bid as he dismantled Ukraine's Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-3, 7-6 to win the Rio Open on Sunday.
The 13-time Grand Slam winner showed no evidence of the back injury that hampered him in Melbourne as he wrapped up his 48th ATP title against an opponent with no answer to the relentless pressure exerted by the Spanish clay-court legend.
And by winning a 43rd career clay court title, the 27-year-old threw down a gauntlet to pretenders to his French Open crown which he defends in Paris in May.
Nadal went into the match with a 4-0 winning record against Dolgopolov with the Ukrainian never having even broken the world number one's service.
And the Spaniard was on top quickly in the first set, breaking Dolgopolov's second service game to love as the Ukrainian made a succession of unforced errors.
Dolgopolov could find no rhythm against Nadal's trademark topspins on the Rio clay and made little inroads into the world number one's service games as he raced into a 4-1 lead in less than 20 minutes.
Dolgopolov held his next service game with three aces and earned a break point in the crucial seventh - the best of the match - which Nadal saved with incredible retrieving and a sublime drop shot.
Nadal snuffed out two further break point opportunities and finally took the game himself as Dolgopolov, seeking to shorten the points in intense humidity, shelled a forehand long.
The disappointment of squandering three break points appeared to deflate the Ukrainian and Nadal took the first set 6-3 with a love service game in 39 minutes.
The second set followed a similar pattern, as Nadal broke the mercurial Ukrainian in his second service game, taking it with a drilled backhand that Dolgopolov was unable to dig out at his feet.
Dolgopolov hit several exquisite winners, especially from the backhand wing but struggled to find a consistent enough game to trouble Nadal, who hit only a handful of unforced errors in the whole match.
To his credit, the Ukrainian refused to buckle and broke Nadal's serve for the first time ever as the world number one attempted to serve out the match.
The success appeared to galvanise Dolgopolov who held his serve to take a 6-5 lead, forcing Nadal to hold for a tie-break, which he did.
In the tie-break, Dolgopolov hit a crucial double-fault followed by an unforced error on his backhand to give Nadal an early lead and the world number one needed no second invitation, taking the set 7-6 and the match in one hour and 41 minutes.
Nadal had a less-than-smooth run-in to the final, surviving two match points to edge compatriot Pablo Andujar in the semi-final 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (12-10).
In contrast, Dolgopolov pulled off a shock against second seed David Ferrer in the other semi-final, beating the Spaniard 6-4, 6-4.
Earlier in the day, Japanese player Kurumi Nara won her first WTA crown, beating Klara Zakopalova from the Czech Republic 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
Nara, ranked 62nd in the world before the tournament started, will climb into the top 50 when the new rankings are published on Monday.