Nikolay Davydenko has long served as a good measuring stick for the top players’ performances. The Russian is consistent, fast, and aggressive enough to handle nearly all players without a major weapon, and even those who do, but are slightly off target.
As Davydenko lacks a big serve, great volleys, or explosive power in his groundies, he can be overpowered by a top-flight player feeling his oats.
And getting overpowered in major events is something he’s accustomed to, whether it's from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, or even less consistent talents like Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian, or James Blake.
He has never sustained a beating like the one he received at the hands of Robin Soderling in the Roland Garros quarters.
He lost twice in the semis of the U.S. Open to Federer, winning no more than five games in a set.
Against Soderling, he won five games total.
The form that allowed Soderling to hit 61 winners against Nadal—possibly the game’s best defender and certainly the best defender on clay—in the previous round held up. Soderling hit 34 winners in just 23 games against Davydenko, including 19 off the forehand wing.
He also made 28 unforced errors; anyone playing that aggressively on clay and finishing with more winners than errors is playing tremendous ball.
More than ever, he fits the “boxing movie villain” embodied by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV: huge, overpowering, and without mercy.
After defeating Nadal, many wondered what the Spaniard had done wrong in losing his first ever RG match.
After the clubbing of Davydenko, maybe we should instead ask, “What did Nadal do that allowed him to win a set?”
Soderling’s best results so far have been indoors, where the lack of wind or sunlight allows him to get away with enormous swings and a sky-high ball toss.
It now appears that clay, at least in good weather conditions, is also very rewarding to his style as its slow, high bounces allow him all the time he needs to set up his massive forehand.
When he uncorks it no one—not even Nadal—has had an answer.
The next question one might ask is, “Is there a Rocky Balboa left in the tournament?”
If the Swede’s level of play continues, it’s going to take a combination of great defense, offense, and heart to stop him from winning this event.
Fernando Gonzalez, his semifinal opponent, has one of those things in abundance...but only one.
Gonzalez has certainly looked impressive so far in this event, having lost only one set in four matches. He decisively beat Andy Murray in the quarters and has a 4-3 lifetime edge over the Swede.
However, considering that the Swede has succeeded in hitting Nadal off the court—something no one else has done in Paris in four years—attempting to overpower him may be like fighting a forest fire with a blowtorch.
Both men have enormous forehands, but Soderling is a bigger guy with a bigger serve.
If the Swede establishes early on that Gonzo can’t outhit him...well, the Flayin’ Chilean has yet to demonstrate a backup plan.
There’s only one guy left in the draw who might be able to play Balboa to Soderling’s Drago—one guy who combines power, great defending, and a champion’s mind.
He has certainly succeeded in outplaying big hitters before, and if he succeeded in subduing the Swede it would be a fitting end to his first victorious RG campaign.
But he’s on the other side of the draw and has two more matches to win before he gets there.