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Steve Flink: Davydenko Departs

6/16/2008 5:22:00 PM

by Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON----He remains among the most enigmatic individuals in his profession, a man who has concluded the last three years in the world's top five, a competitor who has the capacity to make a run at every major event. He is a first rate player who seems too often to forget that the greatest demand more of themselves when the stakes are highest. He gives off the impression that he approaches every tournament with virtually the same mindset, trying his hardest but knowing there is always another event just around the corner.

Nikolay Davydenko has now played at Wimbledon seven consecutive years, and the Russian who is ranked No. 4 in the world has suffered no less than 5 first round defeats at the All England Club. His latest setback on the lawns was a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 defeat against Germany's 27-year-old Benjamin Becker, a journeyman ranked No. 116 in the world. Becker had lost in the opening round of his last six majors. He was best known until now for upending Andre Agassi in the third round of the 2006 U.S. Open in the American's farewell career match. But Becker has never really entered the front line of players despite a formidable first serve and an enviable forehand.

Davydenko simply did not do himself justice for the third time in a row at the majors this year. At the Australian Open in January, he went down 7-6 (2), 6-3, 6-1 to Mikhail Youzhny in the round of 16. In Paris, he squandered a two set to love lead against Ivan Ljubicic and lost 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in a third round encounter. And now he has given another disappointing performance at a major. That is a shame in many ways, because Davydenko has the capacity to perform so much better on the big stages of the sport. His brilliance in winning Miami over Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal in April was a definite sign of what he can do when he is at the height of his powers.

To be sure, winning a tournament many players and authorities believe is an unofficial fifth Grand Slam event is simply not the same as collecting one of the established majors. The pressure is not as severe. The obstacles are not as deep or as wide. The stakes are less significant. Nevertheless, Davydenko reminded us on that occasion that he is one of the fastest players in the world, that he can clip the ball off both sides with admirable depth and sufficient pace, that he is a first rate ball striker.

After that triumph in Miami, I believed Davydenko just might be ready to play a similarly impressive brand of tennis at one of the Grand Slam events. He surely gained at least a measure of confidence from beating a pair of players in Roddick and Nadal who have earned their share of high honors. But, unfortunately, he has gone in the wrong direction these last two majors. He should have put the clamps down and beaten Ljubicic on the clay at Roland Garros after taking that two set lead. And here on the grass against a player he should handle, he gave a lackluster performance.

Davydenko has an awfully good return of serve, but he broke the German only once. He could not contain Becker from the back of the court. He did not find a way to take the initiative himself. He would not break out of a losing pattern and impose his authority as he should have. Asked if this was more a matter of Becker playing great tennis or just playing poorly himself, Davydenko responded, "No, he played good but I play really bad." He complained that his return in this contest was "really bad." He mentioned that he hurt himself decidedly with five double faults, too many of them at important moments.

The 27-year-old Russian was asked about playing in a clay court event in Warsaw the week before last, and how that might have hurt his preparation. He explained that he still had plenty of time to get ready on the grass. As he said, "I was already here one week and practicing [on grass] every day. We'll see what happens next year, what I can do and what I can change for the future for grass courts."

Fair enough. But Davydenko needs to look longer and harder at himself to figure out why he is not making more of an impact at all of the majors on a more consistent basis. He has reached three quarterfinals at the Australian Open, two semifinals at Roland Garros, and two more semifinals in 2006 and 2007 at the U.S. Open. That is adequate evidence that he can lift his game when it matters the most. But this year he has not fared well in the first three majors, and the view here is that he better start approaching the Grand Slam events with a much greater sense of urgency.

Without a renewed commitment and an altered outlook for the majors, Davydenko will not ever find himself in a position to win one of the game's most cherished prizes. 

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