The Avatar

by: Steve Tignor | October 17, 2014

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Nikolay Davydenko won 21 titles and more than $16 million during his career. (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

To wind up 2014, I’m reposting 14 articles I liked from this past season. I’ll put up one each day until January 5, when the new season begins. Today, a(other) good-bye to the most human of tennis computers.

Dav-a-DENK-o!” It’s not the easiest name for a crowd of thousands to chant, and it wasn’t heard often over the course of Nikolay Davydenko’s 15-year pro career. But back in 2007, the slouching rowdies inside the old center court at Rome’s Foro Italico turned it into a stirring melody. And it worked: The roar of the Romans helped Davydenko push Rafael Nadal, who hadn't lost on clay in two years, to a third set. In the end, the Russian didn’t win the match, but he won the crowd, and that meant almost as much to him.

“Did you notice that the Italian people here,” Davydenko was asked afterward, “have a special feeling with you?”

“It was great,” he said. “I was smiling and they support me in the second set. That was nice.”

That day Davydenko, who announced his retirement from tennis at age 33 on Thursday, couldn’t hide his pleasure or his surprise at finding himself the fan favorite in a match against a top player. No matter how well he did, he never stopped thinking of himself as one of the game’s workhorses, its supporting cast, rather than one of its star attractions. Davydenko’s nose-to-the-grindstone attitude helped him win nearly 500 matches, reach four Grand Slam semifinals, take home three Masters titles and a World Tour Final crown, and climb to No. 3 in the world, all while weighing just 150 pounds and lacking an obvious weapon. Yet it was also an attitude that virtually guaranteed Davydenko would never go farther than that.

“He played like a robot, like a wall,” his countryman Temiurez Gabashvili said this week. Davydenko was Ukrainian by birth and Russian by residence, but there was a Teutonic tinge to his game. At 14, he was spotted by the agent Eckhardt Oehms, who brought him from his Volgograd home to Salmtal, Germany, to train. Just as Steffi Graf learned the game in a basement with her tennis-mad father in Bruhl, Davydenko, to hear him describe it, was virtually locked inside a tennis court by his older brother and coach, Eduard, in Salmtal. Four hours a day, every day, he went crosscourt and down the line on the fastest courts around—in winter, he played on rubber; in summer, he played on wood. Always, Nikolay played, until he could take any ball on the rise and change its direction without a hitch or a second thought.

Does that sound like the recipe for a dull style of play? Somehow watching Davydenko never was. He was less like a robot than he was a video-game avatar—he made repetition exciting, and brought energy to the efficient. His quickness and timing allowed him, Andre Agassi-like, to stand on top of the baseline, take the ball as it rose, and drive his opponent from corner to corner. The pleasure in watching Davydenko came from seeing him pile one precision shot onto the next; it seemed as easy for him to hit a corner as it was for most of us to push the ball into the middle of the court. Like another recent retiree who never won a Slam, David Nalbandian, Davydenko was a sweet ball-striker. Nalbandian was famous for his backhand, but I always loved Davydenko’s forehand. The balanced way he set up for it made the rest of the shot look like a piece of cake. His early lessons on fast courts served him well when the game slowed down.

Davydenko was effective against just about everyone. In his prime, between 2008 and 2010, he recorded 22 wins over Top 10 opponents, and he beat the Big 4 14 times over the course of his career. In one of his two claims to immortality, Davydenko is, so far, the only player to face Rafael Nadal a minimum of five times and finish with a winning record (6-5). And while his career mark against Roger Federer was a dismal 2-19, he played him tough on many occasions.

It was against Federer, in the quarterfinals of the 2010 Australian Open, that Davydenko reached the high-water mark of his career, and then watched the tide recede. Two months earlier in London, he had beaten Federer for the first time in 13 tries, and he had done it again in Doha. Suddenly, Davydenko was no longer an afterthought; he was the hottest player on tour and a contender for a Grand Slam title. He stayed hot through the first week in Melbourne, and then through the first set and a half against a nervous Federer—he was up 6-2, 3-1, 15-40 on Federer’s serve. Then, in one 11-game swoop, history reasserted itself. Federer won the second set 6-3, the third set 6-0, the fourth set 7-5, and went on to win his 16th major title. 

“Again, again, again,” Davydenko was left to lament. “Like the same what happened last time in Grand Slam. Have chance, I didn’t realize, and I lost...I can’t explain what happened.”

What happened was that Davydenko’s rise had ended as quickly as it had begun. He would finish 2010 ranked 22nd; he would never get out of the third round of a major again; and in six more matches with Federer he would win just one set. Injuries would begin to take their toll; when Davydenko lost a step in his 30s, the rest of his game went with it.

But his two months of fame had been fun. During that time, the tennis world at large found out what reporters had known for a long time: Davydenko, while he may have looked the part of a mad movie villain, was a funny guy who was always good for an honest quote.

Asked about his success at the Kuala Lumpur event, which he won in 2009, he said, “My wife [Irina] likes the shopping mall next door very much—this is why I had to win the tournament.”

Asked if he was tired before a match in Doha because he hadn’t been “sleeping alone,” Davydenko said, “Come on, I have wife. Come on, come on, what do you want, two girls, three girls, four girls?

“You are a Russian,” the reporter reminded him.

“I’m Russian, but I’m not Safin,” Davydenko answered with a laugh.

And he wasn’t afraid to tweak the game’s elite, with a mix of brutal honesty and dry humor.

Asked by my colleague Dan Markowitz in 2007 if he thought Andy Roddick would win another Grand Slam, Davydenko looked at him and said, simply, "No."

Asked at the 2012 Aussie Open about Federer's player-council leadership (the ATP was trying to force a prize-money increase from the event), Davydenko said, "I don't know why Roger isn't supporting the players. Because he don't want...any problems. He’s nice guy. He’s winning Grand Slams. He’s from Switzerland. He’s perfect.”

Prize money meant a lot to Davydenko; that was why he played the game. This is true for every pro, of course, but especially so for the Russian. Despite his high profile, he spent his career in a mostly fruitless search for sponsors. He made up for it by playing wherever and whenever he could, and finished with 21 titles and $16 million in earnings. No wonder Irina became known for her enthusiastic thumbs-ups from the players’ box. 

Unfortunately, Davydenko’s other claim to immortality also involves the quest for money. In 2007, he retired from a match against Martin Vassallo Arguello in Sopot, Poland. During play, a suspiciously large amount of cash—$7 million—was bet on Vasallo Arguello to win, even after he had lost the first set 6-2. The gambling service Betfair eventually voided all wagers, and the ATP investigated Davydenko for match-fixing, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence.

That episode shouldn’t be forgotten; it’s a reminder of tennis's ever-present dark side. But Davydenko the player should also be remembered as an overachiever, a guy who did more than even he thought was possible with his game. He’s certainly one of the best players never to reach a major final. (Though I doubt that’s something Davydenko would want written on his tombstone.) 

Yet I still think Davydenko sold himself slightly short. As his ranking rose and his confidence grew, he could conceive of himself as a great player, a great worker, and a great money maker, but he couldn’t conceive of himself as a Grand Slam champion—not with so many giants of the game surrounding him. 

All of which made the moments when he shocked himself so memorable. There was his smile of appreciation at the crowd support in Rome against Rafa in 2007. Even better, there was the screaming, eye-popping, “Holy Jesus, I just won the World Tour Finals!” reaction he gave us after he won the biggest title—and, yes, biggest payday—of his career, in London in 2009. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player kiss a trophy with so much unembarrassed gusto. Davydenko never knew how much he was capable of, until he did it. More than that, he never seemed to realize how much he wanted to win important titles, until he did it. In that sense, the so-called robot was the most human of athletes.

Davydenko won’t go down as an immortal, he won’t have much of a presence in the record books, and he probably won’t make the Hall of Fame. But his game will be remembered by the sport’s full-time fans. In the future, I expect to walk around the outer courts at a Grand Slam and catch a glimpse of an older player in a senior doubles match, not as tall as the rest, hard to recognize under a baseball, cap, taking balls on the rise and lining them effortlessly into the corners. Someone nearby will ask, “Who’s that?” Someone else will answer, “That’s Davydenko.” And they’ll agree: “The guy was a machine.” And they’ll be right, in a good way.

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