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Steve Flink: Davydenko tries to change the subject

3/31/2008 3:34:00 PM

by Steve Flink

For too long now, whenever the name Nikolay Davydenko has been mentioned, even the most remote followers of the game have rolled their eyes and shaken their heads. Davydenko, unfairly or not, has become a symbol of the serious gambling problem in tennis. He is the man at the center of a betting scandal, although there is no proof at this juncture that he is guilty of deliberately losing a tennis match at an obscure event on the ATP Tour in Poland last summer. Be that as it may, much to his chagrin, Davydenko has found himself mired in controversy. He has been under investigation by the ATP Tour for possibly throwing his match against Martin Vassallo Arguello last August in Poland. Heavy bets were placed against Davydenko in that contest against a player ranked No. 87 in the world that he was expected to dispatch with relative ease. Even after Davydenko won the opening set, the bets continued to surface against him. He retired at 1-2 down in the final set, citing a foot injury as his reason for quitting.

Eight months after the fact, nothing has been resolved. Davydenko has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but his name has not yet been cleared. But now, after winning the most important tournament of his career in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open, Davydenko has, at least for the time being, changed the subject. He has reminded us all that his success in the upper levels of the game has been no accident. He did, after all, finish 2005 at No. 5 in the world. He concluded 2006 at No. 3. He ended 2007 still up there among the elite, garnering the No. 4 ranking for the year.

Those were considerable accomplishments. In that span, Davydenko reached three consecutive Australian Open quarterfinals. He was a semifinalist at the 2005 and 2007 French Opens, making it to the last eight in 2006 at Roland Garros. And for the past two years, he has been in the penultimate round of the U.S. Open. This man has never quite touched greatness, but now he just might be ready to reinvent himself. Maybe, just maybe, Davydenko will be permanently altered by his unexpected triumph in Miami.

Only once before had the 26-year-old Russian come through at a Masters Series event. He won the indoor event at Paris in 2006. And yet, although he recorded some good wins that particular week, and while it was a significant accomplishment, what happened there does not compare to his latest success. Davydenko came from match point down in the second round of the game's "fifth major" against Ernests Gulbis, and drifted precariously close to defeat before subduing Simone Bolelli in the third round. He then was pushed to 7-5 in the final set by Mario Ancic. But, in the semifinals he toppled Andy Roddick for the first time in six career head-to-head clashes, halting the American in straight sets.

Capping off a superb tournament, Davydenko took apart Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-2 in the championship match, besting the Spaniard for the first time in three career appointments. To be sure, neither Roddick nor Nadal played particularly well against Davydenko. Roddick had ended an 11 match losing streak against Roger Federer the night before, overcoming the Swiss stylist 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. He had played an outstanding match against the world No. 1, serving better than he ever has against Federer for a complete match, sparring well from the baseline, picking the right times to charge the net. Federer, for his part, played an abysmal game when he served at 3-4 in the final set. He failed to knife a backhand volley down the line and Roddick passed him down the line off the forehand. Then Federer made three consecutive, glaring unforced errors--- two off the backhand and one on the forehand. He had lost his serve at love, the only time he was broken in the match. Roddick served it out confidently.

When Roddick won that match, he could barely contain the tears as he walked up to the net to greet his opponent. He has twice lost to Federer in the finals of Wimbledon, and he suffered another bruising defeat against his old rival in the finals of the U.S. Open two years ago. To beat Federer for only the second time in 17 career confrontations, and the first time since the summer of 2003, was monumental to Roddick. The guess here is that he might have beaten Davydenko if he had the luxury of a day off. He might then have been able to clear his head and regroup. Physically and emotionally, he would have been a whole lot better off.

But the fact remains that Davydenko gave a dazzling performance to upend a player who had owned him in the past. He stood way behind the baseline and made a lot of solid returns. He served with surprising potency himself, unleashing some thunderbolts, mixing up his delivery skillfully. And his mobility was almost out of this world. He covered the court with such alacrity that a weary Roddick could hardly believe his eyes. Not only was Davydenko incredibly quick, but he was hitting big shots off both sides on the run. He controlled the tempo in the rallies.

In his convincing 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Nadal, Davydenko took his game to an even higher level. Nadal, who had enjoyed an impressive tournament including victories over James Blake and Tomas Berdych, seemed primed to win his first tournament since Stuttgart last July. He had been tested severely in his two previous skirmishes with Davydenko, including a hard fought semifinal at the 2007 Italian Open which Nadal won narrowly 6-4 in the final set. Nadal had won those two matches largely with the strength of his mind, and Davydenko was exhausted toward the conclusion of the match in Rome.

This time around, Nadal had an early opportunity. He came from a service break down to lead 3-2 in the opening set. Davydenko was serving into the sun, looking anxious and uncertain. Nadal had two break points which would have given him the cushion of a 4-2 lead. But, on the first break point, Nadal wasted an opening. He had shifted from defense to offense, and was set up for an inside-out forehand. He drilled that crucial shot into the net. On his next break point, Nadal drove a backhand pass long that he is more than capable of making.

From that moment on, Davydenko dominated the match. He was driving the ball off both wings with such depth and pace that Nadal was helplessly placed on the defensive. Nadal started pressing and lost all faith in himself. One of his primary problems was that his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt was not bothering Davydenko much at all. Davydenko answered with penetrating two-handed backhands that took the initiative completely away from Nadal. Moreover, Davydenko looked for every opportunity to take high balls off his forehand from near the middle of the court, challenging Nadal on his forehand side, sometimes going for well measured winners. Nadal tried to counter by going down the line, but he was often late making contact, and sometimes caught completely off guard.

All in all, Davydenko, playing with a new racket and a different stringing pattern and using the same frame all through the tournament in Miami, performed beautifully. We must give him his due. He has been one of those top of the line players who has never quite connected with the public or the press, a terrific striker of the ball who happens to be devoid of charisma. On top of that, until he stepped up in Miami and struck down Roddick and Nadal to claim the crown, Davydenko had always seemed too content to just hold his ground in the game and ask no more of himself than that. His mentality and court temperament were essentially negative.

The hope here is that he now has altered his outlook and will push hard at the majors this year. And if Davydenko manages to win one of the premier prizes, if he were to find a way to take his Miami heroics and use it as a springboard toward larger triumphs, that would be a good thing for him and for the game. Winning a Grand Slam title may be beyond his capabilities, but at least now he might envision such a possibility. The jury is still out. David Nalbandian won back-to-back Masters Series crowns last autumn indoors at Madrid and Paris, but he has been a major disappointment since then. I just hope Davydenko presses on with more resolve, the deepest possible commitment, and a new level of self conviction. If he does move closer to greatness, and if his name is cleared from the gambling controversy, Nikolay Davydenko could really change the subject.

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