“Now I'm top 10. She scared about if I start to, with kids, lose tennis and go down, stray. That's was because I start to miss and I want to go home, (not) want to practice. That's what is different.”—Nikolay Davydenko, commenting in 2010 on his wife Irina’s fear that if the couple have children he will lose his motivation — and earning potential.
Nikolay Davydenko’s English was always a little like one of those bird’s nests you get in a fishing reel; it took a lot of untangling. But that also has been part of Davydenko’s goofy charm. Born in the Ukraine but a Russian citizen since his 18th year, Davydenko officially retired Thursday at age 33, 21ATP Tour level titles and more than $16 million richer than when he first sallied forth in 2001 to compete in Grand Slams.
Ranked as high as No. 3 in the world in 2006, Davydenko won just six tour level matches in this, another injury-fraught year, during which his ranking dropped to No. 244. Even hard-driving Irina Davydenko must see that it’s time to allow her hard-working husband to put his feet up and focus on a life after tennis.
Davydenko was a four-time Grand Slam semifinalist (two each at the French and U.S. Opens). He won three Masters 1000 titles, the last of them in his career year of 2009. He finished 2009 ranked No. 6 in the world thanks to the single greatest performance of his career.
Davydenko won the ATP World Tour Finals that year, and he did it the hard way. After losing his first round-robin match to Novak Djokovic, Davydenko slashed his way through, in succession, No. 2 ranked Rafael Nadal, No. 9 Robin Soderling, No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro — a man a full eight inches taller and incalculably stronger than Davydenko.
Power never was Davydenko’s strong suit. Instead, he played tennis almost as if it were ice hockey. He was as fast on his feet as if he were wearing skates, and he specialized in slapping hard, quick shots with little spin to the open spaces across the net. His style earned him comparisons to David Ferrer and (retired) David Nalbandian, but at his best he was more dangerous than either. Nalbandian won just 11 titles in his entire career, Ferrer is presently tied with Davydenko at 21, but Davydenko’s record in big events is slightly better. Though the Spaniard reached a Grand Slam final, Davydenko was always more explosive than the grinder Ferrer.
“I don’t have any regrets about not winning a Grand Slam or not being No. 1 in the world,” Davydenko said of his overall record. “I was in the Top 10 for some years (five).”
Unfortunately, Davydenko tended to get swallowed up by big occasions. There’s no doubt that with his “fast” game, Davydenko was capable of producing more performances comparable to his enchanted 2009 run in London. But just when it looked as if he might be on the verge of breaking through at a big event he often fell prey to nerves.
This quality became part of Davydenko’s Woody Allen-ish appeal. For nobody looked less like an ATP pro than Davydenko, with his slight build, bald head, and worried frown. His voice and garbled diction only enhanced the impression. Davydenko was the great anti-celebrity of his generation. When he was asked at the Australian Open of 2010 if he is recognized in the street, his reply was a Dada-esque gem.
“If I go outside now here, it's be difficult to do in autograph. But in the street in the city, yes it's easy. Nobody recognize me and it's good feeling really. Really good feeling.”
But Davydenko also leaves the game with a few serious red flags on his resume. He was involved in a match-fixing controversy at the Sopot tournament in 2007. While ultimately cleared, the result left many questions unanswered — and some charging that Davydenko got off lightly for fear the scandal would hurt the ATP. Later that year, he was warned in two different matches to put forth a better effort lest he be fined and/or disqualified.
On the whole, though, Davydenko leaves us with, as he himself might say, a good feeling really, really good feeling.