Rivals meet for record 40th time

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NADAL
DJOKOVIC

Nadal motived for first Sony title

Wilansky By Matt Wilansky
ESPN.com
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Admittedly, I almost had to pull out of our little debate with a sticky W-key on my laptop.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, although "W" is only the 20th most common letter in the alphabet, it would have prevented me from using terms like "walkover" and "withdrawal." Or sentences like "'What' do 'we' 'watch' now" or "'Well' done, 'Wawrinka'" -- oops, "wrong" tournament.

Anyway, can you imagine how much more backlash the Sony Open suits would have endured if it were Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic who pulled out? At least a blockbuster clash in Sunday's final is some consolation after the historic double walkover in Friday's semis.

Which is a nice segue into this question: Rafa or Djoker?

It's hard to believe, but this is the 40th time Nadal and Djokovic will meet, the most head-to-head battles by any two players in the Open era. They split their six matches last year, with each winning two matches on hard courts. Overall, Nadal leads the series 22-17, but if you look at their history since 2008, it's been almost a dead heat.

So what will be the difference here, Mr. Garber?

They're both incredibly proficient on a hard surface, but the courts at Key Biscayne play on the slow side of the spectrum, and the ball tends to sit up. In other words, Rafa's substantial topspin is going to have extra bite, and even though Djokovic, is as good as anyone at taking the ball on the rise, he is going to find himself playing on his heels more than he'd like.

On Friday evening, Nadal told ESPN's Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill that after tepid spring results, he's starting to feel it again. And this is important given that as utterly irrepressible Nadal has been in his career, he has had pockets of underwhelming results, whether it was his Wimbledon foibles or knee/back issues.

We also can't overlook the fact that Miami is the most significant tournament in the world that Nadal has yet to win. He's absolutely motivated to make sure that gap in his résumé is closed by EOD on Sunday.

The truth is, Mr. Garber, I am hedging a little bit here, and you can't blame me considering how competitive this rivalry is. But I can tell you this: No matter what the outcome is, as long as both players step on the court, it will be a win.

Djoker has ruled the Sony Open

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- How's this for luck?

Novak Djokovic received a bye in the first round here at Sony Open Tennis, as befits the No. 2 seed. After beating Jeremy Chardy in straight sets, Djokovic got a walkover in the third round when Florian Mayer withdrew with an injured groin. Routine, straight-sets victories followed against Tommy Robredo and Andy Murray, and then on Friday, Djokovic got another gift: Kei Nishikori pulled out of their semifinal match with -- but of course -- a tender groin.

It's the first double walkover of Djokovic's career, and it looked like a terrific advantage.

And then, the impossible happened. Before the semifinal match between Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych it was announced that Berdych was withdrawing after he was visited by a violent stomach bug.

The advantage, Mr. Tennis Editor, goes to Djokovic.

Djokovic could have been partying on South Beach all week and still made the final. With only six sets under his belt, he's as fresh as those little squalls that pop up here on the bay. This is Djokovic's fifth Miami final, and he's won three times, so it wouldn't exactly be a stretch.

Rafa has yet to win here, and I think in part it's because of the wonderful chaos that surrounds this tropical place.

It's not like Djokovic needs any assistance; he's 15-2 and coming off winning the title at Indian Wells. And this year, he is particularly fired up.

Remember 2011, when Djokovic won three of the four Grand Slam singles titles? At that point it looked like he might go off on a Federer-like tear and win bunches of majors. It didn't really happen that way. Djokovic took one each of the past two years, and last year was particularly painful.

After winning the Australian Open, he lost to the eventual champion at the remaining three Slams: Nadal in Paris, Murray at the All England Club and Rafa again at the US Open. It did not sit well with him. Now that's motivation.

Rafa, as you know, sir, is a creature of habit. He likes his routine -- craves it, really. This one is going to throw him out of rhythm.

Djokovic, in three.

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