Nikolay Davydenko: The Brilliant Under-the-Radar Man Aims for London

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Nikolay Davydenko: The Brilliant Under-the-Radar Man Aims for London
(Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)

He’s not a man who seeks the limelight.

Not for him are the front rows of fashion shows, the Cosmo photo shoots, or boxes replete with celebrities.

He shuns the attractions of Monaco, Miami, and Dubai for his home town of Volgograd, where he has lived since the age of 11.

Yet Nikolay Davydenko is capable of playing headline-grabbing tennis, and that is precisely what is doing right now.

In Kuala Lumpur at the beginning of the month, he took out Gael Monfils, Robin Soderling, and Fernando Verdasco on his way to that title.

He has the scalps of David Ferrer on clay in Hamburg and of Fernando Gonzalez on the hard courts of Montreal. And he wiped the floor with Juan Carlos Ferrero to win the Croatian Open.

But he has saved his best for last.

In winning the Shanghai Masters this week, he ripped apart the games of the two best players in the tournament: Novak Djokovic in the semis, and Rafael Nadal in the final.

So low is Davydenko’s profile that it is easy to forget just what scintillating tennis he can produce. The manner in which he beat Nadal and Djokovic was a timely reminder.

He is able to put together extravagant, extended rallies that bring elements of chess to the tennis court. He uses hard, penetrating, technically-efficient ground strokes to open up the court with surgical precision, and then injects killer shots down the line or cross-court. Both sides are equally deadly.

Many have compared his ability to take the ball early with that of Andre Agassi, and there is also something of Agassi in the power that the Russian can generate from the extreme margins of the court. Not only can he play blistering flat drives from all parts of the court, he can deliver the ball to every inch of the width of his opponent’s court.

The body language of Davydenko, however, could not be more different from Agassi’s. His on-court persona verges on inscrutable—very much in tune with his off-court persona.

He is a small, slight, angular man who moves between points with a measured, slightly pigeon-toed amble. He goes about his business without fuss, with little time-wasting, and the minimum of verbal communication.

But it’s easy to see when he’s feeling good. His eyes open wide to near circles, and his mouth sets into a straight, taut line. If his opponent sees that look, he needs to be very, very afraid, for that is when Davydenko’s tactical brain is at its sharpest and his confidence is unwavering.

It is then that his ability to pierce shot after shot at remarkable trajectories, acute angles, and penetrating pace sets his tennis alight.

It is also why he has maintained such an enviable record in the men’s rankings. Davydenko has been in the top 20 for little short of five years. For much of that time, he was in the top five, and he has won at least one A.T.P. World Tour title each year since 2003.

Now, with the Shanghai win, 2009 has become his most successful title year since 2006.

Davydenko has, on occasion, been criticised for a lack of mental toughness. Shanghai has turned that on its head. He won a final set tie-breaker against Djokovic. He then went on to win a first set tie-breaker against arguably the toughest attitude in tennis: Nadal.

What’s more, Davydenko was carrying three hours of tennis in his legs from his arduous semi-final match, while Nadal could not have been fresher—his previous two opponents retired injured.

There is one more area in which Davydenko has shown frailty in the past: the consistency of his serve. But his stats for the year show a 69 percent first serve average. In his final against Nadal, he served at 70 percent.

Make no mistake. Davydenko has set his eyes and his heart on a place in the London finale. No matter how low a profile he tries to maintain, his tennis this autumn is going to attract headlines. His aggressive, clever and fast game is on the radar, and there is no place for Davydenko to hide for the remainder of 2009.

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