Simon Reed

Spain favourites but vulnerable

Simon Reed

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The Davis Cup final takes place this weekend and bookmakers have made Spain strong favourites to defend their title by beating the Czech Republic in Barcelona.

When you look at the two teams on paper, the Czechs don't appear to have a side that matches up with the Spanish.

On form, pedigree, and experience, you would have to pick both Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco to beat Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych.

But I'm still not sure of the result - really not sure. I would not lay a lot of money on Spain to win.

If you were to put a gun to my head, I'd still have to say that Spain are the favourites but I think it will be very close and that the defending champions are vulnerable.

The key factor for me is Nadal. Is what happened in London last week significant? I just don't know. But I do think he is less of a player now than he was six months ago. To what degree remains the big question.

However, if it can't work for him in Barcelona, in front of his own fans and on clay, well then it is not going to work anywhere. It makes it a very difficult conundrum for the Spanish. Y

ou also have to say that the Czech Republic have played very well and fully deserve to be there. To beat the Croats as well as they did, and on clay too, shows you how strong a side they are.

One thing I could see happening is the atmosphere and the adrenaline of the event helping Nadal to overcome his injuries. It is the Davis Cup final and he will be determined to win, especially as he missed out on the final last year.

But you just don't know with him at the moment. I have been sensing major problems with Nadal for the best part of two years and I do think things have got significantly worse.

He has managed to look after his knees really well for a long time, but I'm not sure how long he can continue doing so. I hope I'm wrong because I love Nadal, but my gut feeling is that we might have seen the best of him and that he will never quite get back to his previous level.

He could still be a significant player near the top level - at number four, five or six in the world - but would Nadal settle for playing at that level? I'm not sure he would.

It also looked like he was lacking his usual fire last week. His uncle Toni has said that he is suffering from low morale, something Rafa has disputed, but this could be a factor too.

Maybe, sub-consciously, he has been mentally affected by things. There have been some domestic problems with his parents splitting up, the issues with his knees, and he is also now being beaten more regularly than at any other time in the last five years.

Perhaps the most vital thing of all is that Nadal's opponents are now going out on court with the belief they can beat him.

If you asked me six months ago - Spain v Czech Republic on clay - it would have been a no-brainer: Nadal wins both his matches, and probably in straight sets too. But that's no longer the case.

Looking at things from the Czech viewpoint and it is hard to know what to expect from them too.

Stepanek, in many ways, is a law unto himself, but I suspect that he will relish playing away in the lion's den. He likes the role of villain and I think he will rise to the occasion.

Berdych is a different kettle of fish. He has a terrific Davis Cup record but he does have a reputation of not performing in the latter stages of Grand Slams, which belies all his natural ability. I think he has underachieved considering all the attributes he possesses.

A Davis Cup final provides a similar degree of pressure to the latter stages of a Grand Slam - certainly not any less - and this match provides a huge opportunity for the Czechs, even if they are odds against.

I actually think there is less pressure on Berdych with the match being in Barcelona than there would have been if it was in the Czech Republic - there is not the same level of expectation on him to do well.

Bookmakers have Spain as favourites, and they have to be made the favourites. Nadal and Berdych are the keys for me. Stepanek I'm pretty sure about what I'm going to get, and Verdasco the same, but the other two you just don't know.

If Nadal loses his rubber then I think it will be up to him whether he plays the second.

He has many qualities and one of them is total honesty. If he isn't able to perform at anything like the level he wants, then I think he will make the decision to withdraw himself.

I don't think Albert Costa would be able to drop him, but Nadal could come to him and take the decision out of his hands.

So, to sum it all up, yes I agree that Spain are the favourites, but I can't pick them with any great degree of confidence.

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