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Rafa v. Kolya: Preview 04/05/2008 - 6:03 PM

The women's final, full of odd twists and turns and failed attempts to take control (or were those attempts to lose control?) of the match, is over. Jelena Jankovic, the darling of women's tennis, is still smiling and laughing. Serena Williams, the Queen of Miami, is buying a new case for her latest trophy. Mr. Bodo will tell you what it all means in his blog; meanwhile, I'll walk us over to the men's final, which begins, weather permitting, at 1:00 p.m. tomorrow (the forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms).

It was almost a year ago that Nikolay Davydenko, the most anonymous top five player in tennis, became an international sensation--scandal, or more precisely, the whiff of scandal, can do that to you. By the end of last year, about the only thing Davydenko could do well was double fault (so well that it once earned him a warning for lack of best effort). At the Masters Cup in Shanghai, the man looked beat.Davydenko

The longer the ATP's investigation into that match in Sopot, Poland, where Davydenko retired against underdog Martin Vassallo Arguello as online gamblers bet millions against him, the easier it is to have sympathy for the man, whose name has been sullied by association despite no specific allegations against him. As it turns out, though, sympathy isn't necessary. Davydenko is in a downright wonderful mood in Miami.

"It's like starting from zero, really," he said. "I waiting for the end of the year, you know, because one month with no press, nobody write about you, and like, you feeling so happy."

Davydenko has never beaten Rafael Nadal, but he's played him tough in their two matches, one on clay in Rome and one indoors in China two years ago. Both matches went three sets. Here are five keys to the match.

1. Davydenko's racquet. He's only got one stick in his bag, or at least one stick with 18 strings (his back-up racquets are older models). I've had various conversations about racquet technology with scientists both inside and outside the industry, and I tend to think that players, professional or otherwise, exaggerate what a different racquet can do for their games. It seems that as much of the improvement (or in some cases, perceived improvement) is in the mind, and when one's mind is confident and remains quiet during a tennis match, one invariably plays better tennis. Does Davydenko need this new racquet to win this match? No--and also yes. "No" because I'm certain that Davydenko could hit the ball just as well with one of his old racquets (if you watched him push Roger Federer to four sets at the Australian Open in 2006, including two tiebreaks, you'd have to agree--Kolya can hit the ball). "Yes" because it seems that Davydenko himself believes the racquet has helped him tremendously this week. If he believes it, it's true--even if it isn't. Got that?

2. The serve. Is Nadal's serve better than it once was? Is it the same? Is it worse? How's this: It's not worse and sometimes it's better. Mostly, it's the same, which is to say, decent but not terribly good. Davydenko consistently puts up some of the best return-of-serve numbers in the game and I think his style of returning is particularly well-suited to Nadal's serve. Davydenko does not excel at returning blazing serves (in the first set against Roddick, when Roddick served incredibly well, Davydenko had no chance). But when Roddick's serve lost a little steam, Davydenko corralled it and sometimes punished it (he broke Roddick three consecutive times in the third set). In short, Davydenko doesn't neutralize fantastic serves like Federer tends to do, but he pummels ordinary ones. Nadal, he of the ordinary serve, will probably find himself on the defensive on many points. Davydenko's serve is more of a mystery to me. He stunned Roddick on Friday not only with his serving consistency, but with his power (he hit one 136 mph). If he serves like that again, he'll be in great shape. Then again, he's never served like that before, so how likely is he to repeat a such a rare performance?

Nadal 3. The baseline. Yes, I'm talking about the physical line; more precisely, I'm interested in how far each player stands from it during the rally. Nadal has tried over the last few years to keep himself on the line or just behind. He's had varying degrees of success (this tournament has been, overall, a great success in this regard). Davydenko, like Andre Agassi before him, plays as if he's wearing an electric dog collar set to give him a deadly jolt if he steps more than six inches to the rear. Davydenko isn't as consistent (match to match) as Agassi was, and he doesn't compare to the former world no. 1 in terms of confidence and toughness. But he's every bit the master at hitting the ball on the rise and creating angles--with short, quick steps--that don't seem possible (he also has more foot speed and lighter feet). If Davydenko stands close and keeps his compact swings in order (does anyone else take more practice swings between points?) Nadal might find himself in retreat. The more defensive Nadal plays, the more trouble he'll have on his hands.

4. The weather. After he defeated Roddick, Davydenko spoke (with amazement and a hint of fear) about Nadal's fitness and physical presence--not only his strength, but his seemingly endless reserve of energy. "I remember against him in Rome I played three sets three hours, and I was completely dead. He was also tired, but in last points, you know, last game, I don't know how he find, you know, his power." No doubt Nadal will have plenty of energy for this match, but at least Davydenko won’t have to contend with the sun. The forecast calls for clouds and thundershowers, so Davydenko might even get a few prolonged breaks.

5. New rules. This is the first year that this tournament will have a best-of-three-set final. I wouldn't give Davydenko much chance to beat Nadal in three out of five sets. In a shorter match, though, anything can happen.


51 Comments

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Posted by Gabbie 04/05/2008 at 06:35 PM

I'm rooting for Nadal. Congrats to Serena, after like 10 match points, she finally won.

Posted by Philip 04/05/2008 at 06:37 PM

No, I won't say first.

Anyway, I have had some really bad racquets in my day, but once I was able to afford a more expensive racquet my feel for the ball had improved dramatically and thus my confidence because the ball was staying in the court and doing what I wanted it to do more often. In fact with this racquet I am still relearning a lot of the shots I had lost feeling for when I used to play more frequently before reality took over and I had to work for a living.

Posted by jb 04/05/2008 at 06:37 PM

interesting preview Tom. I'm thinkin' if the racket gives Kolya confidence - he has a good shot tomorrow. Time after time we see matches won / lost on what's between the player's ears; if this magic stick gives him an edge, then whoohoo and game on on Sunday!

Either way, after the time he had last year, its nice to see him happy and playing well again.

Posted by andrea 04/05/2008 at 07:02 PM

go davydenko! you've been ousted in the semis so many times by roger federer...this is your time.

Posted by zorba 04/05/2008 at 07:17 PM

Nadal in 12. Games, that is.


Posted by daniela 04/05/2008 at 07:19 PM

I'm rooting for Nadal too.....

we'll see, anything can happen! vamos

Posted by daylily 04/05/2008 at 07:19 PM

vamos, rafael!!!!!!!!

Posted by Nick 04/05/2008 at 07:24 PM

Nadal might have had a better match up against Roddick just for the reason that the pattern of points would have been much more straightforward: deal as best he could with the Roddick serve and get into a rally where Nadal has a clear edge. He might have lost to Andy anyway, but he would be clear on what to do.

The pattern of points with Davydenko will be much less predictable since they both play essentially the same way. Davydenko played well in the second set against Andy, but the truth is he was helped considerably when Andy started to go away mentally when getting broken early in the second. Losing the first set hurt Andy in a big way, and I'm wondering if Roddick didn't already mentally place himself in the Final before he actually played his Semi-Final since he owned Davydenko going in. That's what it looked like watching the match.

Rafa has one clear edge over Kolya in winning matches mentally, especially ones that look lost. But ironically, sometimes I think Nadal's greatest problem on hard courts has been mental fragility of his own - he plays as though he believes in his vulnerability there. And that leads to his bad habit of hitting too safely in extended rallies, trying not to miss. That safe play will be a disaster for him. If he remembers who he is and plays with aggressiveness befitting his ranking, then his mental edge should carry the day for him tomorrow.

Posted by Lo Svizzero 04/05/2008 at 07:25 PM

I am with Davydenko. The cleanest of clean hitters.

Posted by Maedel 04/05/2008 at 07:33 PM

I feel for Kolya and all he has gone through, but I want Rafa to win.

Vamos chiqui!

Posted by Helena 04/05/2008 at 07:36 PM

I`m with Nadal!!! He is a very good strategist so I`m confident that he is working right now on how to beat Davydenko!! Play agressive Nadal! Go for your winners! Good luck all!!

Posted by 04/05/2008 at 08:03 PM

Davydenko's game is not very similar to Rafa's, except that they have unimpressive serves (usually) and great groundstrokes. But Nadal plays with way more spin and tends toward playing it safe, whereas Davydenko takes risks trying to take control of points. The most obvious difference is their depth of shot: Nadal has a tendency to pull his balls short, whereas Davydenko tends to miss long when he misses. Davydenko uses depth of shot and angles to put pressure on his opponent, whereas Rafa relies more on the heaviness of his shots and his consistency.

I think Davydenko's game is better suited to the surface. If he is playing his best, I think he is actually the favorite over Rafa, but it would not be surprising if Davy hits a few too many errors and loses because of it.

Posted by waylandboy 04/05/2008 at 09:47 PM

Davydenko is a nice story but Rafa is rolling right now. Nadal in straights, 7-5, 6-3

Posted by sanlarc 04/05/2008 at 10:51 PM

VAMOS RAFA al the way from Barbados

Posted by sayWhatWeWantToHear 04/05/2008 at 11:00 PM

good luck Kolya, win one for the others.

Posted by Jim 04/05/2008 at 11:02 PM

Odds have to favor Nadal, but one thing Tom's excellent preview didn't mention: When Nadal hits his cross-court heavey top spin forehand, instead of finding a weak backhand he'll find Davydenko standing inside the baseline, changing directions to strike a down-the-line backhand. Nadal isn't used to that, except from Djokovic and we all know how that has gone recently.

Posted by Rey Segaya Jr. 04/05/2008 at 11:03 PM

I love Rafa to win the Miami title for the first time. I believe he has shown that he has improved a lot in playing on hard courts.

If Rafa tends to be defensive, he will really have a HARD TIME against Nikolay. Davydenko makes you pay for short balls or high-bouncing balls with not enough pace. Rafa should play aggresively just like how he played against Novak in the 2007 Indian Wells final.

Posted by Sher 04/05/2008 at 11:06 PM

I have a question: why are the same articles linked multiple times from the homepage under _different headings_?

Posted by zolarafa 04/05/2008 at 11:15 PM

Reading all this seems Davydenko is the favorite tomorrow. I know he has been playing great and against Roddick he just played fantastic. I also like his habbit that he doesn't brag before a match but just goes on the courts and plays his game.

I think just like Berdych match, this is another test for Rafa.As important as a 10th master shield and a title before clay season is, win or lose, Rafa has had a great hard court season, espacially in Miami.he was able to win Blake twice as well as Tsonga and Berdych, when all were playing very well. Whatever Rafa has done, is working for him. If those tactics work against Davydenko as well, that will be just great. If not, he will learn from those.

If RAfa can hold serve and put pressure on DAvydenko, he has a chance to win. We have to wait and see. VAmos RAfa! Play aggressive and do your best. You can do it!

VAmos RAfa!

Posted by ken 04/05/2008 at 11:21 PM

Rafa's serve is not strong enough to give Kolya problems. Kolya used to hit with Safin when Marat was a strong player, and can handle big servers.

The question is whether Kolya can locate his serve well enough to paint the corners with Rafa's return. I think he can, and will win in two sets.

Posted by ken 04/05/2008 at 11:32 PM

Rafa's serve is not strong enough to give Kolya problems. Kolya used to hit with Safin when Marat was a strong player, and can handle big servers.

The question is whether Kolya can locate his serve well enough to paint the corners with Rafa's return. I think he can, and will win in two sets.

Posted by Diego V. Ragaza 04/05/2008 at 11:42 PM

I go for Davedengco because he is a low profile guy. He is not conceited like his opponent. Go Nikolai! you can do it!

Posted by Marian 04/06/2008 at 12:01 AM

Go Rafa!

He made Blake and Berdych tire and Davidenko has similar memories; Rafa can do it again!

Although, it's Davidenko who introduced this kind of modern tennis consistently (Nalbadian being another one that used it at the end of last season)...

Posted by Dragonlily 04/06/2008 at 12:39 AM

It has been a joy to watch Rafa this tournament, he's playing so well. I would love to see him take this title. But for once, I think I wouldn't find it painful to see him lose. Davydenko has earned a big title.

He should enjoy it. Soon everyone will be using the new racket and it will be a level playing field again.

How long can that investigation be kept open with no evidence? And will the betting company find itself forced to pay up when the investigation is dropped?

Posted by 04/06/2008 at 12:45 AM

diego v.... you say nadal is conceited.you must be joking he is one of the most humble players on tour.Nadal will make short work of that man who throws matches

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