“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.