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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.


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Posted by Juan José 04/06/2008 at 12:51 AM

Tom, this was one of those pieces you write where it's pretty difficult to either add something or disagree.

I think tomorrow is about Davydenko's will. If he wants it, if he believes he can actually do it. He has a big dog game, but has lacked the self-belief to fulfil the potential of all that talent.

So it's about finally making that leap. And maybe on that lone racquet holding up.

Posted by sayWhatWeWantToHear 04/06/2008 at 01:17 AM

What is 'belief'?

Posted by sayWhatWeWantToHear 04/06/2008 at 01:19 AM

Is visualizing an outcome, the same as believing? Or is there more to it?

Posted by Or 04/06/2008 at 01:52 AM

I think, that just like what happened to Andy, Kolya got rid of his own mini Gorilla there, and is going to have a let-down.

Rafa will take it, and if he repeats last year performance on clay, he'll emerge as the new number 1 at the end of the French, if not before.


Posted by Joe 04/06/2008 at 01:53 AM

Davydenko is a cheater. I'm all for nadal but like tennis anything can happen.

Posted by ken 04/06/2008 at 02:03 AM

Visualization, IMHO, is the margin of victory among the current top 10 players. Djokovic visualizes a sequence of shots from his return and rapidly moves to control the center of the court; he locates the ball in a way to give his opponent only a low-percentage passing shot. True masters like TMF and Andre Agassi make those passing shots; Nikolay can too, particularly from the backhand side.

Rafa has learned to disrupt his opponents' strategy with a well-placed spinning shot that compromises their footwork, and then visualizes the highest probable return; this allows him to steal time from his opponent and take control of the point.

Posted by 04/06/2008 at 03:19 AM

Ken, your 2:03 sounds different than your 11:32, I think you have a great point but I am not certain which side you have netted on?

Posted by ken 04/06/2008 at 04:07 AM

Kolya has the tools to dismantle Rafa the same way Djoko did.
Rafa is at a severe disadvantage against any player who can hit deep,
flat groundstrokes to the corners. The ball simply has very little 'air', and Rafa cannot dig those out. If Rafa sits at the baseline, he is toast. When Blake made his groundies, he won the set. When Rafa balled up James' footwork, James became frustrated and melted.

I made an effort to explain visualization for another poster,'sayWhatWeWantToHear', who may have read a post I made within the "Comparation" thread (P.Bodo).

Posted by ken 04/06/2008 at 05:00 AM

"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"

Mr. Perrotta, what match did you watch? Nikolay crushed four of Roddick's serves in the first set tie-breaker. The match only lasted two sets.

I watched Davydenko CRUSH Safin's serve several times in the first set of a match at indian Wells in 2006. Safin became so upset he picked up a little chair and smashed it on the court. He then recited a little 'haiku' poem in Russian and apologized to the crowd. One of the most exciting live tennis matches I have seen.

Posted by Rachael 04/06/2008 at 07:31 AM

where as Roddick's big and emontional win over Federer in the QF was probably detrimental to his performance in the following match, I think Davydenko's win going into the final will have the opposite effect on his game today.
there's no doubt it was a big win for Kolya. being the underdog despite playing a lower seed can't be heartening - but he put Andy to the test and I think got stunning results.
he's since had a day to recover and really get some perspective on the position, which was a luxury Roddick didn't afford.

going into the match head smart, and with this exaggerated confidence in his racquet, I think and hope he'll prove a tough opponent for Nadal.
he's got the feet to deal with any of Nadal's sneaky spinners, and got the baseline techniques to grind Nadal down. plus, Nadal's serve barely registers after Denko's response to Roddick on friday.

I want Kolya to edge out Rafa in this one. despite being - seemingly one of the few - Roddick enthusiasts, I don't begrudge Davydenko for halting Roddick's progress and would love to see him consolidate his form with the win.
looking at his root to the final he has been tested, and to still be playing strongly with self belief will hopefully go some way to getting hold of the title.

Posted by peggy 04/06/2008 at 08:36 AM

I want Davydenko to win, and he certainly will. He is poised for the occasion. He is proved that he can get pass the semis and be in the finals. He stands a chance to winning against Nadal. I don't like Nadal and his style of play esp the delay in serving. It drives me nuts. Again - I don't want him inching to becoming no 1 cos if he wins, he will be 520 points behind Federer goig into clay season. Davydenko will win and it will be a surprise to all of you. i will be rooying for him and he will come up with some beautiful shots tonight. Go Davydenko, for the fact that u reached finals, it's ur game to lose.

Posted by OuzO 04/06/2008 at 08:45 AM

Davydenko will make it 2night...Davai Davai!!!

Posted by elenas 04/06/2008 at 08:46 AM

Im rooting for Nadal but if Davydenko is anything like he was against Roddick it'l be a hard task for Rafa...C'mon Rafael

Posted by Marian 04/06/2008 at 09:04 AM

Either way, this is the game between the two best players of the tournament: Davidenko in terms of consistent great strokes and Rafa in terms of physical preparation and mental thoughness.

Vamos Rafa!

Posted by GVGirl 04/06/2008 at 09:06 AM

Vamos Rafa!

I do think he'll take this one in straights. Please no rain today!

Posted by Red⁺ = Legacy Solidified 04/06/2008 at 10:09 AM

May the best baseliner win!
Go Tennis!

Posted by Tom 04/06/2008 at 10:57 AM

I read that the racquet has a more dense string pattern. That would make a difference ... maybe. Mental or mechanical, I hope it works and he pulls off the win today.

Posted by felizjulianidad 04/06/2008 at 11:54 AM


Since you take the care to write proper English, just a few reminders: 1) you may write "whereas" as one word; it's not necessary to split it and 2) you used the wrong "root"--in this case, it's "route". I know this may be annoying of me but I only do it when I see that someone does care about writing properly, but made a few mistakes along the way.

Regarding the tennis, I was not lucky enough to watch the Davydenko-Roddick match. Davydenko is probably the player with the most lopsided talent:fame ratio. He's a darn good tennis player and just isn't as widely covered as any of the others., for one, preferred to put Roddick alongside Federer, Nadal and Djokovic--consciously overlooking Davydenko and Ferrer.

He's had great matches against Nadal--YouTube a clip of theirs on clay last year to see some absolutely tremendous action. Davydenko and Nadal basically square each other out purely on the tennis--we've seen how close their matches are. Davydenko's confidence is a mystery, and how it translates into on-court action is similarly indecipherable. In his (head?)case, there is certainly a case to be made for fear of success--recall his 3-set loss against Federer in the FO SFs last year, with two tiebreakers and one 7-5, if I remember correctly.

Nadal, on the other hand, is never overconfident, is frequently the underdog, and benefits from feeling confident. He's not a natural on this surface, but he's become a Top5er on it, and as previously stated, is technically on par with Davydenko on this one.

I think the match starts in about an hour... I should go home now.

Apologies in advance for any typos. I'm coming off a 12-hour workday.

Posted by Carrie 04/06/2008 at 11:54 AM

Well- it looks like from the posters here that Koyla is the favorite to win the match. I agree and put him at about 60% because of his strong serving in the later matches of the tournament, his great ability to take the ball early (and Rafa can be prone to hitting short balls), and his wonderful shot placement. Rafa needs to make sure he is aggressive and mix up his serve at times.

I think it is nice that these two are playing for the final as Rafa is one of the few players to have been vocal about his support of Koyla during the investigation. I want Rafa to win and am rooting for him but I can handle a Koyla win since he has had some beautiful play.

Still- am rooting for Rafa. And I hope that even if he doesn't win- the muttering of he is not even a top ten player on hard will calm down. He has made it to the semis of the last five hard court Masters (including Shanghai) that is not too bad for someone who is sometimes derided as not being able to play on this surface. Without playing once on clay yet this year he has the highest number of wins on tour so far for 2008. I am not saying he is the best on hards- but I am saying he is a factor and not the hard court schmuck that he is sometimes painted as being.

Posted by Rachael 04/06/2008 at 01:07 PM


oops! schoolboy errors on my part. no apology necessary for the corrections. I'll point out that it was probably because I had just stumbled out of bed. but also maybe not.

reading the comments on Bodo's blog, I agreed with someone saying if Nadal takes the first set then he'll power through to the win.

I'm hoping for three sets of superb tennis though. hopefully their tight h2hs will continue in this match. I'm not ready to say goodbye to the tennis yet, even if it isn't for long.

Posted by insideoutsteve 04/06/2008 at 01:28 PM

I think the most important factor in the outcome of todays match is who davydenko has money on.

Posted by Red⁺ = Legacy Solidified 04/06/2008 at 02:35 PM

Aah, the vindication, the validation.
congrats to Kolya and all his fans.
For me, this loss is no way reflects negatively on Rafa.
Go Tennis 2008

Posted by kanuk 04/06/2008 at 02:39 PM

I also felt the same for Nadal, but never believed that he can make it aginst Davyenko this time. As it turns to be a beating in the second set.

Posted by Helena 04/06/2008 at 02:48 PM

didn`t like the game!!! thew tournment deserved a better final!!!
felling very dissapointed! I was hoping for at least 2 hours game and it was very easy!!! not fair!

Posted by crazyone 04/06/2008 at 03:08 PM

Juan Jose, I guess there's no more prognosticating on tennis for you this year. Here's to 2008 as a crazy year of tennis!

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