Watching this match would be one of the most disappointing experiences for a Nadal fan—well, for most of the fans who did watch the match.
But if one takes the result away, what is left is some splendid tennis, full of great shotmaking, intense mental exchanges, and extreme drama.
What do we take back from this match? A look at the same...
1. No one is going to beat Rafael Nadal by exchanging groundstrokes with him in this kind of form. His topspin forehand in the first set was penetrating the court and biting the dust on the baseline.
When someone paints lines, or rather removes the paint from the lines like that, with such an amount of topspin, the concept of "taking it early" doesn't exist. You will feel the full weight of the stroke on your hands. It is fatiguing, and the probability is greater that you will not hit it cleanly enough.
For this reason, Davydenko's strokes were pretty ineffective in the first set, and the difference between them was clearly as much as the difference between their physiques.
2. Nikolay Davydenko probably is the Andre Agassi of this era. Or, rather, he has become that. It is hard to believe that anyone can take the ball earlier than he is at the moment.
This ability to take the ball so early, coupled with the fact that even when taken early, Nadal's forehands are at the height of your shoulders, means that when you receive them short, you can create amazing angles stepping into the court. But you need a great backhand for that, like the Russian has.
And the Russian started nailing all of them on the sidelines from the beginning of the second set—thus almost winning the point.
When a top-spin forehand is hit deep, it has more horizontal pace; it literally climbs on you, putting you on the back-foot and hence on the defensive. But when it is short, it climbs more vertically, and you can adjust how much you need to move forward to be in the comfort zone.
If you do it correctly, you are in an attacking position. It is a pretty difficult thing to do, which is why Nadal has only a few bad matchups.
3. Nadal has improved the depth on his returns. In the first set, when Davydenko was not really having the best of times serving, it was Nadal's first delivery that set the tone for the point.
He has started looping the ball a bit (not "moon-balling" by any means) loaded with top-spin, aiming for the baseline on the other side of the net, which buys him time to make his way to the middle of the court. This in most cases pushes the server back, getting Nadal into the point.
But when the serve is deep, flat, and more powerful like how the Russian served in the second, he ends up landing the balls shorter, but it again has the top-spin loaded on it. This gets a player like Davydenko into the point.
4. Davydenko is amongst the toughest fighters on tour. He is ready to dig deep to win, even against the best players. A few players recently have refused to wilt under the "aura" that Federer and Nadal have had in the past, and Davydenko is a front-runner now.
After losing innumerable set points in the second set, and against Nadal's own championship points on the Nadal serve, Davydenko hung on. Nadal again had a break of serve in the last set, but Davydenko again broke back to level the match, and then he had the decisive break.
After the second set, they were probably on equal footing in the third, but then to edge somebody as tenacious as Nadal takes a lot of courage.
5. Nadal is retooling his game. He is playing a few great volleys at the net and with better touch and feel.
His serve speed has improved, but his serve percentage has dipped. He is winning a few aces and service winners too. This corroborates with reports that he has been studying tapes of his service action at the behest of his uncle.
He is also stepping inside the court more often nowadays than before, to shorten points and gain better control, especially with the backhand and the forehand down the line.
But his passing shots have been a bit absent this whole tournament. On the few occasions the opponent forayed into the net, he either tried giving them topspins or hitting at their feet with a few passes here and there.
Anyway, one can see an attempt to graduate into an all-courter. The pieces have to fall in place a bit better. But in that attempt, he needs to flatten out his crosscourt forehand as well.
6. Davydenko has a great all-around game. Well, good enough to beat Nadal firing on all cylinders.
It was pretty evident from the first set that he was not going to stay at the baseline and get the better of Nadal. He had to change things and get outside his comfort zone.
He started serving better, started constructing points better, and started finishing them off at the net. Taking time away from Nadal was not going to be simply a matter of taking it early today. Also when you show that you have an option to approach the net, the opponent is kept guessing.
He started reducing Nadal from an offensive baseliner to a defensive player, destroying his rhythm. He planned his approach shots pretty well, covered the net very well, and even so well that he hit a lunging crosscourt drop volley off a Nadal pass coming from way outside the tramlines.
Once Nadal's rhythm was not really there and he started feeling uncomfortable, he started defending more.
This attitude and resourcefulness are what makes Davydenko a top contender for a Slam, most probably the Australian Open.
7. Finally, Rafael Nadal is way better than he was at the end of last year. If he remains physically fit, he will surely be there on the last two days of Australian Open, unless the draw throws him early surprises.
Great Slam contenders work their way into form through the period of the tournament and peak at the right moment; in all likelihood, Nadal will have things sorted out by that time.
Davydenko is another frontrunner for the Australian Open title. The only thing that is not really certain is his fitness. But that can be said only in light of the fact that we have not seen him in this kind of form at a Slam. At the end of his Doha final, however, he was good enough to play on.
That's all for now.
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