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Steve Flink: Davydenko Reinvents Himself

11/30/2009 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When the top eight players in the world--- minus Andy Roddick--- assembled in London this past week for the eagerly anticipated Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, only four members of that elite cast seemed like serious candidates to garner the prestigious season-ending title. The defending champion Novak Djokovic was the “in form” player, having captured three of his last four tournaments. Roger Federer had won this tournament four times between 2003 and 2007, and was determined to regain the crown. Andy Murray was competing in his home country, hoping to close his year in style after so many disappointments at the four majors. And Rafael Nadal--- despite taking many hard knocks across the summer and on through the fall--- could not be counted out.

And yet, in the end, after a riveting week filled with suspenseful and high quality contests, after everyone in the field had given their all, the last man standing was Nikolay Davydenko. The 28-year-old Russian played the finest tennis of his career to capture his highest honor. He toppled the three men who had been victorious at the four Grand Slam events in 2009, cutting down Australian Open champion Nadal in round robin play, startling French Open and Wimbledon victor Federer in the semifinals, bringing down the towering U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the championship match. Davydenko battled back with quiet ferocity after losing a hard fought battle against Djokovic (3-6, 6-4, 7-5) in his first round robin assignment.

In the process of winning the most important tournament outside of the four majors, Davydenko broke down some considerable psychological barriers. The frailty that had been almost a Davydenko trademark was gone. The holes in his game were no longer evident. The largely defeatist attitude that had often weighted him down evaporated. Perhaps buoyed by his recent Masters 1000 tournament triumph in Shanghai, clearly in a far more positive state of mind, Davydenko competed and performed with an inner toughness and resolution that surpassed anything I have seen from him in the past.

Facing Del Potro in the final, Davydenko was unrelenting from the baseline, taking the ball early, driving his flat ground strokes with extraordinary depth. He was setting the tempo much more than his Argentine adversary, and Del Potro was hard pressed to find a way to exploit his heavier ground game and his customary firepower. From the outset, Davydenko was purposeful and his court positioning was impeccable. No one in the game has better footwork than the disciplined Russian, and that more than anything else separated him from an unwavering yet bewildered Del Potro. Moreover, Davydenko served exceedingly well as he had all week, combining excellent placement with more explosive deliveries at opportune times. He was awfully difficult to break, and in addition his touch on the volley was a sight to behold.

Davydenko needed only one break to take control of the opening set, moving out in front 3-1 when Del Potro sent a two-handed backhand into the net at break point down. That unforced mistake was significant. Davydenko lost only one point in three service games in advancing to 4-1. Serving at 4-2, he had a brief bout of insecurity. At 30-30, he double faulted to go down break point, but he got back to deuce with a confident forehand winner off a short ball. Davydenko held on for 5-2 and was out of danger. At 5-3, he served for the set and held on commandingly at love, keeping a disgruntled Del Potro off guard.

Del Potro tried to raise the stakes in the second set, and he found his range to a larger degree off the ground. But it was all to no avail because Davydenko was too masterful on the day. At 2-2, Del Potro fought off two break points with a pair of unstoppable serves, held serve, and then he powered his way into a big opportunity. Twice, Del Potro had break points for 4-2; had he converted either, the complexion of the match might have changed decidedly. But Davydenko was unswerving, delivering an ace down the T to save the first break point, making a delayed approach behind his serve and knocking off a solid forehand volley on the second.

The 21-year-old Argentine held once more for 4-3, but never won another game. Davydenko collected 12 of the last 14 points, sweeping three games in a row to close out a well deserved triumph. At 4-4, he broke Del Potro at love, releasing three outright winners in the process. Serving for the match, Davydenko was remarkably composed. At 30-15, he sent out a final ace, and then came forward to seal the victory with a confident smash provoking an error from his opponent. Victory to Davydenko 6-3, 6-4; it was a title well earned.

No victory during this tournament meant more to Davydenko than his success against Federer. They had met 12 times previously since the rivalry commenced in 2002, with Federer prevailing every time. Davydenko had taken only four sets in all of those confrontations. He had lost to the world No. 1 four times at Grand Slam events. But this was their first meeting since the spring of 2008, and Federer was confronting a player with a brand new mindset. As he had done in all three of his round robin matches, Federer started inauspiciously by losing the opening set.

Davydenko was nearly letter perfect while his revered opponent was way out of sorts. He made only four unforced errors in the set, broke Federer three times, and gave himself an immense boost by winning the set 6-2. At the outset, the match seemed headed in another direction. Federer held at love and had the Russian at 15-40 in the second game. A break there might have carried him buoyantly through the set, but it was not to be. The Swiss maestro carelessly netted a routine forehand down the line, then missed with a backhand down the line. Davydenko held on for 1-1, and the die had been cast.

A discombobulated Federer double faulted twice in the following game and was broken. Serving again at 1-3, Federer was off the mark with three out of four first serves, and was broken at love to trail 4-1. He got one of those service breaks back in the following game, only to lose his serve again as Davydenko caught him on his heels with a deep return down the middle that Federer rolled wide off the backhand. Davydenko easily finished off that set, but from that juncture on Federer competed with a sense of greater urgency and his shot making skills clicked in.

 With the level of play rising significantly on both sides of the net, both players held until the Russian served at 4-5 in the second set. With Davydenko trailing 30-40 in the tenth game and down set point, Federer took utter control of the rally and provoked an errant forehand from his harried adversary. It was one set all. It was as if both players were on script, and everyone knew how the story was going to end. But Davydenko was not flustered. He simply went back to work, and both players produced rallies of the highest caliber all across the final set.

Yet Federer seemed to have a definite edge. He had connected with only 40% of his first serves in the opening set, but in the second set he began picking apart Davydenko, slicing his serve wide to the forehand in the deuce court and down the T to the forehand in the Ad court. Davydenko was particularly bothered by the deuce court serve from the Swiss, and he got into severe difficulty by chipping his returns back short instead of coming over the ball and being more aggressive. Federer--- taking off pace but adding accuracy-- raised his first serve percentage above 73% in the second set, and the pattern continued in the gripping third set.

In his first five service games in that final set, Federer connected with 18 of 23 first serves (78%), and won 20 of 23 points altogether on serve. Persisting with his conservative game plan of not going for aces but instead playing the percentages, Federer kept pressing out in front. The ease with which Federer held made Davydenko’s task even more arduous, but the Russian stood his ground. In his first four service games, he took 16 of 18 points, out-dueling Federer time and again from the backcourt with his agility, depth, and unfailing accuracy.

But, serving to stay in the match at 4-5, Davydenko was in a precarious corner. On the first point of that nerve-wracking tenth game, Federer hit a backhand that clipped the net-cord and fell over for an improbable winner. 0-15. Then Davydenko took command, went on the attack, and smacked an overhead crosscourt from close to the net. On the run, Federer chased it down and retaliated with an astonishing overhead of his own, taken on the bounce. Davydenko was ready to play a backhand volley but Federer’s inspired shot was hit too hard. 0-30.

Two points from defeat, Davydenko was surely at the end of his emotional rope. Or was he? Federer went for a big inside out forehand from behind the baseline and missed badly to make it 30-15. Then Federer tried for a topspin backhand down the line winner, and it went long for 30-30. The next exchange was a beauty, with both players striking the ball in sublime fashion. On the 18th stroke, Federer, unable to get off the defensive, sliced a forehand into the net. Confident once more at 40-30, Davydenko released a penetrating first serve deep to the backhand. Federer’s topspin return travelled long. It was 5-5.

Davydenko had three times been two points from defeat, but he never blinked. At 5-5, Federer reached 40-30 and had the Russian on the run. But Davydenko caught him off guard with a low slice forehand crosscourt. Federer erred on the forehand half volley. Under pressure at deuce, Federer netted a sliced backhand, and Davydenko was at break point. Federer missed his first serve, challenged the call, but the Hawkeye replay backed up the linesman. He spun his second serve too safely to the backhand, and Davydenko sent his two-hander down the line with plenty of margin for error. Federer did not read it. The shot was a clean winner, and Davydenko had the break.

Serving for the match at 6-5, Davydenko charged to 30-0 with a forehand winner to the open court followed by a bold 126 MPH first serve to the backhand that Federer tamely returned into the net. But then the Russian missed an easy forehand off a short return from Federer to make it 30-15. Davydenko drove a backhand long for 30-30, and then a highly charged Federer glided to his right in pursuit of a running forehand down the line from Davydenko. Federer rolled an elegant topspin backhand crosscourt into an open court for a winner. He was at break point, fiercely determined to force a final set tie-break.

Davydenko must have been shaken by the loss of three straight points at such a crucial juncture, yet he never gave a hint of trepidation. On the run, knowing he needed to come up with something substantial, he did just that. Davydenko laced a forehand crosscourt with surprising velocity and it was unanswerable. That clean winner took the Russian back to deuce. He directed another first serve to the backhand, and Federer chipped into the net. At long last, Davydenko was at match point. Federer made a short return, which Davydenko pounded crosscourt with good depth. Federer did not have the necessary reply, sending his shot into the net. Game, set, match Davydenko 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.

In the second semifinal, Del Potro took on Robin Soderling, the big Swede who had entered the event as an alternate, taking the place of an injured Roddick. The first set of this collision went to a tie-break. Del Potro had been the better player in this hard hitting battle leading up to the tie-break, creating four break point opportunities including a 0-40 chance at 1-1, but failing to convert on any of them. In the tie-break, Del Potro was in utter disarray. He double faulted to trail 2-0, made a glaring forehand unforced error to fall behind 3-0, and never recovered his competitive balance. A calm and controlled Soderling took that sequence 7-1.

With Soderling serving at 3-4 in the second set, Del Potro got the first service break of the match, making a trademark deep return to set up an effective forehand down the line. Soderling missed the backhand under duress. Del Potro advanced to 5-3. He was down 15-30 in the ninth game, but consecutive aces pulled him back up to 40-30, and he closed out the set. And yet, Del Potro was not out of the woods. At 2-3 in the third set, Del Potro coasted to 40-15. He had not yet lost his serve in the match. But he let Soderling back into that game, and the Swede accepted the invitation. At break point, he cracked a penetrating two-hander down the line that was too hot for Del Potro to handle.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, Soderling found himself closing in on a big win. At 4-2, he moved to 30-15 on his serve, but Del Potro was not willing to surrender. He took three points in a row to break back, and made some timely and penetrating returns to break back for 3-4. Almost inevitably, the match was settled in a final set tie-break. This time, Del Potro was on top of his game and the situation. The first point of that critical sequence was essentially the whole match. The two determined competitors had a magnificent 24 stroke rally, which Del Potro won with a superbly produced backhand down the line winner.

Del Potro raced to 4-0 in that tie-break. Serving at 6-3, Del Potro won the match with an ace, prevailing 6-7 (1), 6-3, 7-6 (3). This semifinal was nowhere near as appealing to watch as the Federer-Davydenko showdown, but it was high caliber stuff from two men who figure to meet on some big occasions in the next couple of years. For the fourteenth time in 2009, Del Potro had come from a set down to win a match. He had not played his best tennis but he had prevailed primarily for two reasons: he made only 23 unforced errors while the more aggressive Soderling had 41. His defense was far superior to Soderling’s. Moreover, Del Potro’s second serve--- and the way he backed it up--- was too much for Soderling. The Argentine took 64% of his second serve points, which was 22% better than the Swede could muster.

The fact remained that Soderling had done some remarkably good work just to make it to the penultimate round, as had everyone else who got there. The two groups of four players featured more close matches than we gave seen at any year end event since round robin play commenced in 1972. Of the 12 round robin contests, 8 went the full three sets. Since only the top two players from each group of four make it to the semifinals, it is not always easy to figure out who has locked up slots to advance to the “Final Four”.

Consider what unfolded this year. In Group A, Federer won his first two matches, defeating Fernando Verdasco and Andy Murray in three set matches. With a 2-0 record heading into his final round robin meeting against Del Potro, the four time former champion seemed almost certain to make it to the semifinals. By then, Murray had finished with a 2-1 record while Verdasco was 0-3. Del Potro was 1-1 heading into his match with Federer, which left open the possibility that Murray, Federer and Del Potro could all end up with identical 2-1 records.

That is precisely what happened. Del Potro beat Federer in three sets. If three players all have 2-1 records, then it comes down to sets won and lost. As it turned out, Federer, Del Potro and Murray all had records of 5-4 in sets. That had never happened before in the history of the event. Federer realized that he needed to win at least one set against Del Potro; had he not done that, he would have missed the semifinal cut with Murray and Del Potro moving on. Federer managed to narrowly squeeze out the second set in a tie-break. But Del Potro recovered to win in three sets.

If all three players are tied in the sets won-sets lost category, it comes down to games. And this is how it was decided. Federer finished round robin play at 44-40 in games. Del Potro took second place at 45-43. Murray was 44-43. He had missed the semifinals by one game! That was a cruel twist of fate. In Group B, Davydenko was joined by Djokovic, Nadal, and Soderling. Soderling clinched a semifinal place after two straight set wins over Nadal and Djokovic. Davydenko came back from his close defeat to Djokovic to beat Nadal in straight sets, and then he held off Soderling in three sets.

Therefore, three players in Group B---- Davydenko, Djokovic and Soderling--- also finished at 2-1. This time the math was not as complicated. Soderling finished with a 5-2 record in sets, the best in his group. Davydenko was 5-3. Djokovic missed out because he was 4-3. He had ousted Nadal in straight sets in his last round robin clash, and then had to wait until that evening for the Soderling-Davydenko match to be completed. Soderling had beaten Davydenko three of the four times they had met this year--- including victories at the French and U.S. Opens. Another win in London for Soderling over the Russian would have meant that Djokovic would advance with Soderling to the semifinals, but the Swede could not contain the refurbished Davydenko, and Djokovic was out of luck. His misfortune was almost on a par with Murray’s.

Had you asked either Murray or Djokovic at the beginning of the week how they would feel about finishing with a 2-1 record in their respective groups, I am sure they both would have said they would take it. But they had both nosed out by the narrowest of margins. Murray and Djokovic could both look back remorsefully at matches where they could have won more games. For instance, Murray was up 5-0 in the first set of his opening round robin duel with Del Potro. He squandered a bunch of set points in losing the next three games, then took that set and went on to win 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Failing to close out that first set sooner was quite costly to Murray, as was his desultory showing in the final set of his match with Federer, which he lost 6-1.

Murray also must have lamented not converting more than 1 of 13 break points against Verdasco in a match he won 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3). He could well have won that match in straight sets, or more decisively in the third set. As for Djokovic, his half-hearted showing against Soderling did him in. He fought hard in the first set to reach a tie-break. In the second set, he hardly competed and went down timidly 7-6 (5) 6-1. If he could have at least taken a set off Soderling, he might have been a semifinalist.

That is the nature of round robin events. The players have to consider the score differently than they do anywhere else in single elimination tournaments. After this year, however, there may well be a new awareness among the players of taking very game of every match with the utmost of seriousness. I have a feeling Murray and Djokovic will be back in London next year with a much better understanding of what it will take for them to survive the format.

In any case, I don’t think I have ever watched so many compelling round robin skirmishes. Right off the bat, the matches were hanging in the balance. On opening day, Murray made his way past Del Potro, and Federer was pushed inordinately hard by Verdasco. Federer double faulted on the first point of the match, lost his serve at love, and dropped the set. Verdasco--- swinging his left-handed sliced serve effectively yet predictably wide to Federer’s backhand time and again, stayed with the world No. 1 all the way to 5-5 in the second set. He had Federer at 0-30 in the eleventh game, but just missed a forehand pass down the line. Federer prevailed 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.

The next day, Djokovic won that terrific encounter which went down to the wire against Davydenko, and Nadal came up very short against Soderling. He lost 6-4, 6-4 to the Swede. The Spaniard served at 4-5 in both sets, and failed to hold both times. In the first of those instances, he served an ace that would have brought him back to 5-5, but the ball was called out and he did not challenge what was an erroneous call.

On Day Three, it was time for Del Potro to hold off Verdasco in a final set tie-break, winning 6-4, 3 -6, 7-6 (1). The Argentine led 5-2 in the final set, had match points in the eighth and tenth games, and finally prevailed in the clutch in a tie-break he had to win. Federer faced Murray next, and was soundly beaten in the opening set. But Murray had an abysmal serving day and Federer found some magic in the second and third sets with astounding ground stroke virtuosity, winning 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 in his best performance of the week.

On Day Four, Soderling dispatched Djokovic and Davydenko knocked out a disconsolate Nadal. The Russian built a commanding 6-1, 4-2 lead before Nadal began moving with his customary spark and energy. Nadal forced that set into a tie-break but Davydenko was hitting his stride and he held on for a 6-1, 7-6 (4) victory. The next afternoon was Thanksgiving, when Murray halted Verdasco in a first class encounter, taking the match in a final set tie-break.  He never lost his serve in the match but broke an obstinate Verdasco only once. Federer then followed against Del Potro, who was too good. The Argentine never lost his serve, stifling Federer over and over again with thunderbolts to the backhand that the Swiss could not control on the backhand chip.

Del Potro rolled through the opening set 6-2, helped by a Federer double fault at 1-3 and break point down. Both men held all through the second. Del Potro went ahead 4-2 in the tie-break, and then served at 5-4, two points away from taking Federer out of the tournament. Del Potro hit one of those big serves to the backhand, got a short return from his opponent, but netted a routine forehand from short range. Instead of being down double match point, Federer was relieved to be back to 5-5 in the tie-break. He took the set, but Del Potro was both brave and fortunate in the final set.

At 3-3 in the third, Del Potro was down 15-40. He nailed a forehand for a winner off a hanging net cord shot from Federer, and then the Swiss misfired on a backhand. At break point for the third time, Federer had no chance as Del Potro’s big second serve skidded off the line. Del Potro held, broke Federer for 5-3, and served out the match, serving an ace down the T on match point. He won 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3. The following day, round robin play concluded, with Djokovic defeating Nadal in straight sets and Davydenko holding off Soderling in three.

When it was all over, I was sorry to see it end because the tennis was so absorbing. Looking at the tournament in a larger context, we found out that Nadal is in the doldrums, and he has now lost four consecutive matches as he heads into the Davis Cup Final over the weekend. Maybe we should not overreact; he has, after all, won only one indoor tournament in his entire career. He seems to need the wind and the sun and the elements to find the necessary inspiration. But he was disturbingly down on himself all week, and it is worrisome. I have never seen the Spaniard make so many unforced errors on big points as he did repeatedly in London.

Djokovic unluckily did not reach the semifinals, but he still ended his 2009 campaign in encouraging fashion. Murray might have won the tournament if he had made it to the semifinals, but he did win more tournaments (6) than anyone else in the men’s game in 2009 and he still seems likely to seal a major in 2010. Federer did not play one completely clean match all week, and did not win a tournament after Cincinnati in 2009. The Australian Open will tell us a lot about where he is headed next year. No matter how well he seems to be performing anywhere else, he still seems to rouse himself for the majors.

As for Nikolay Davydenko, he has taken himself and his game to an all time high level. To win a Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai, and then follow up with his most important triumph ever in London, is strong evidence that he can now compete against anyone in the world on all of the surfaces. Whether or not he can finally move beyond the semifinals of a major for the first time, and perhaps win a Grand Slam event, is the question at hand. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I believe he will give himself every possible chance to succeed on one of the premier stages in 2010.

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