A Handful of Autumns

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Davydenko won his biggest title five years ago at the ATP World Tour Finals. (AP Photo)

LONDON—There was no grand farewell when Nikolay Davydenko, who won the ATP World Tour Finals in 2009, retired from professional tennis in October. He might have picked up his racquet one last time as a token gesture and bid adieu on the court at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, for example, at least receiving a warm hand from his home public.

But that wasn’t Davydenko.

He was, as Roger Federer put it, more of a “quiet” guy, unlike the man he replaced as the top dog in Russian tennis, Marat Safin. Davydenko let the tools of his trade do most of the talking.

And did he ever possess a game.

Davydenko’s return, ability to take the ball early off both sides, and speed made him arguably one of the most watchable players on the tour. When he was firing, few could cope. According to the ATP, his 6-5 mark against Rafael Nadal gives him the distinction of being the lone player to beat the Spaniard five or more times and possess a winning head-to-head record. He also finished 4-6 against Andy Murray and posted two victories each over the other members of the Big Four, Federer and Novak Djokovic.

With 21 titles, the workhorse earned six more than Safin. 

“Nikolay was an unbelievably good player,” Federer told TENNIS.com at the World Tour Finals. “If you look at his results, when he was on, he could do things not many players could do—take it out of your hand and just fire away.

“The return, forehand, backhand, he could just dominate. He was one of the fastest and best players to go down the line forehand and backhand. I always enjoyed the challenge against him.”

Five years ago at the World Tour Finals marked Davydenko’s apex, as the Russian ended his 0-12 skid against Federer in the semifinals before toppling then reigning U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro in the final, all the while backed by his bubbly wife and sometime coach, Irina. To this day he’s the only winner of the season-ending championship not to have reached a Grand Slam final, a fact that probably reveals more about Davydenko’s tendency to succumb mentally during key moments than anything to do with flaws in his game.

He never did, though, have a big serve, and he struggled in spells with double faults, memorably drawing sympathy from chair umpire Cedric Mourier at the Paris Masters in 2007 in a tussle against Marcos Baghdatis. (That Davydenko was criticized in some quarters for essentially not trying seemed inappropriate. Anyone who witnessed the contest would have noted he just couldn’t, for all his effort, hit the serve in the box.) 

“He’s definitely the best player to never make a Grand Slam final because he was there for so long, for a long period of time,” said Federer. 

Davydenko was near the top for a significant spell, contesting five consecutive year-end championships from 2005-2009. He advanced to four Grand Slam semifinals, three times undone by the Swiss. 

“I don’t want to say anything bad about my career,” said Davydenko, whose highest ranking was No. 3, in a phone interview. “I liked how I played. I liked my life the last 10 years.

“Sometimes people say (maybe I’m disappointed) because I never won a Grand Slam or became No. 1, but I’m not disappointed. Everything was perfect in my life. And if you look at my career results, who stopped me at the Grand Slams? Mostly only Federer.” 

Ah, yes, Federer.

Davydenko’s career was indeed defined by his encounters with Federer, and a handful were tight, despite a 2-19 record overall.

Take the 2007 French Open semifinals. Davydenko led the first set 4-2 and failed to serve out both the second and third sets. He fell in three and Federer admitted afterwards, “I could have just as easily lost in three sets.”

At the 2006 Australian Open, Federer ousted Davydenko in four sets in the quarterfinals, taking the last two 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5). Davydenko couldn’t serve out the third and missed six set points.

But the mightiest blow occurred at the Australian Open in 2010, two months after Davydenko’s breakthrough performance in London and weeks removed from his follow-up victory over Federer in Doha. By that time, Davydenko had turned into a bit of a media darling, called “Mr. Personality” by Serena Williams. 

Glance at his Grand Slam matches and you’ll be hard pressed to find Federer, since he became Federer, being dominated over a long stretch. Only Nadal has inflicted that kind of damage on him, really, on the clay of Roland Garros. Yet there Davydenko was, leading 6-2, 3-1 in the quarterfinals and cruising, leaving Federer admittedly bewildered.

“The thing is, I was not only down in the score but I just lost to him in Qatar and in London,” said Federer. “I was coming off an unbelievable streak against him, to then losing back-to-back matches and being down in Australia, and he was playing out of his head.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know what to do but let me hang around like I’ve always done, work hard, defend, try to serve well and find a way.’”

He did that, with Davydenko’s assistance.

Davydenko missed a sitter of a backhand on break point that would have made it 4-1 in the second—and his chance was gone, despite saving a match point in the fourth with a sizzling return reminiscent of Djokovic’s against Federer at the 2011 U.S. Open. Whereas Djokovic struck a forehand cross court, Davydenko crunched a backhand down the line.

“Anyway, the beginning of 2010 was really good,” said Davydenko.

Davydenko injured his wrist later in 2010, like del Potro. They were developments that helped to restore the supremacy of the Big Four, according to Federer. 

“I believe he would have played for world No. 1 with del Potro in that year,” he said. “Both got injured at the same time, which allowed me, Novak, Rafa, and maybe Murray to benefit from that because they were the guys to beat at that time.”

The wrist problem—Davydenko won a match with a broken wrist in Indian Wells against Ernests Gulbis prior to a correct diagnosis—signaled the beginning of the end for the right-hander. His body didn’t co-operate. He gradually slid in the rankings, and this year the 33-year-old posted a 6-10 record.

Davydenko said he knew his career was over after he lost in the first round at the French Open to Robin Haase. He never played again, though he desperately wanted to.

“Sometimes for players, you just need one week to get a good result and your ranking will be better, and mentally, confidence wise, too,” he said. “If you want results, you need to be 100 percent fit. I was never 100 percent fit, always 60, 70, 80.

“If I won a first match at a tournament, I have problems in the second. That was very tough.” 

Davydenko has no plans to follow Safin into politics—yet—nor does he intend to coach for the time being. 

“I always have a chance to be a coach but I want to try something different,” he said. “A different life, to see what a different life can be.”

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