ATP Tennis 360

January 23, 2010 2:43 PM

Davydenko, the "Middleman champion"

Nikolay-Davydenko_AP.jpgAfter his World Tour Finals victory, nobody asked for his autograph. But Nikolay Davydenko didn't complain by his being underlooked by fans. "I enjoy being like this, I don't want to be famous like these guys," he said. Why? "Because I like to enjoy my life. I enjoy going to clubs and having nobody recognise me". A situation he experienced even in his homecountry, but for different reasons. "Sometimes people look at me, and then they don't believe it's me. Because Russiansthink about how he can walk on the street because always he driving car. Never you see really famous people just walking somewhere. If you go in the bath sitting somewhere, people watching you and go, No, it's can't be him. It's not normal"

Normality is the keyword to understand the exceptionality of a champion wearing for longtime not sponsored apparel, who, being the fourth best player in the world, was forced to play a tournament with a single racquet. A player discarded by tornament organisers, rarely lettimg him play on the central court before the very last stages, by media and by Russian fans. When last year he played against Safin in Moscow, 80% of the crowd supported Marat. And, even he should won the Australian Open, he admits "people won't go drinking in the streets. It be Monday next day and everybody need work".

Anyway, he doesn't lack support by his family: his brother and coach Eduard and his wife Irina, travelling with him since his Davis Cup debut against Czech Republic in 2003.

"Kolya" has been long seen only as an hard-working player, an highly focused counterpuncher, the symbol of the great role of motivations and training in bringing someone not blessed by the amount of talent and genius of a McEnroe to success. For media and fans he was like a perfectioned version of players like Rainer Schuttler. Instead, he is definitely more than a counterpuncher.

The Russian, grown up inspired by Ivan Lendl, at age 11, in 1992, left his parents and went to live with Eduard in Volgograd. And developed, from then on, a peculiar standard of game made of anticipation, similar to Agassi's extreme strokes, fast hits and possibly few errors. He could reach incredible heights, but anyway he's yet the highest player not to have played a Grand Slam final yet. Why? Because he has always lacked enough self-confidence in the closing stages of big matches. And a bit of mercuriality isn't compatible with the style of a counter-attacker from the baseline.

Even without consider the parenthesis of the gambling scandal born with the match against Vassallo Arguello in Sopot, and the humiliation of being reproached by a chair umpire because he was registering too much doubles, the 2007 Rome Masters semifinal against Rafa Nadal perfectly synthetises his pros and cons.

He pushed the Mallorcan back and forth for 3 hours and 38 minutes (only 16 less than the then longest best-of-three match played by the Italian Andrea Gaudenzi and the Russian Andrei Cerkassov in 1993), but he didn't succeed in avoiding the 76th consecutive Nadal's victory on the same surface (an absolute record). Davydenko seemed a wall in the first set, forced to a tiebreaker, but wasted a set point and lost it 7 points to 3. Then he rushed out to break Nadal when he was serving for the match at 5-3 in the second, decided again in a tie when Nadal saved 6 set points before surrendering. But, at 4-4 in the third, Kolya crashed and Rafa conquered 12 of the last 13 points.

Almost the same thing happened last year, at the Roland Garros. He won a great match against Verdasco, he felt up. But, one day, suddenly, from nothing he woke up a morning with completely different feelings. He sensed the shadows hanging over him. Needless to say, that day he easily lost to Robin Soderling.

Equally suddenly, last fall something clicked in his mind transforming his game into a Playstation. And he becomes unstoppable. Kolya defeated both Rafa and Roger in the same tournament twice, in London and Doha, when he put in 27 first serves out of 27 in the first set against the Swiss and recovered from 06 01 against Nadal in the final, beating him on his own game after a jaw-dropping performance: cracking him from the baseline, playing a meter inside the court with outstanding angles and constant anticipation reducing Rafa's time of reaction and compelling the Spaniard to play shorter.

Kolya, maintaing his wit and auto-irony, confessed not to fear anyone. Or better still, he said: "Okay, in tennis there are so many 6'0 players. You said they are giants, but are this guys running like me? No", and then "Why everybody scares of me?".

Probably because of that something making the Middleman evolve into a champion. Because of the new confidence shown by Kolya, who only at 28 has started to think about him as someone entitled to win a Grand Slam event. And, if he really believes in something, he can obtain it.

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