Nikolay Davydenko: The Resilient Russian
ATPWorldTour.com pays tribute to former World No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko, who made an emotional farewell to professional tennis today.
In Eduard Davydenko’s two-room Volgograd apartment, Nikolay Davydenko became tennis mad. It was not an overnight transformation, for he had not considered a pro career upon arriving at his older brother’s doorstep aged 11. But the sport, ultimately, became his escape during the hard years preceding the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1992, he dedicated himself to the sport, often spending four hours per day training during school time in a bid to hone his all-court game. In the winter, his timing was tested on the wooden floor of a local police athletic club; then, in the summer months, he perfected his strokes, fine balance and athleticism on a rubbery surface. On Sundays, he put down his racquet and worked on his fitness.
Although Davydenko became the only Russian to place in the year-end Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings for five straight years [2005-2009], he was happy to ply his trade in the shadows of the sport’s biggest names. Quiet and unassuming by nature, his 15-season pro career was characterised by his capacity for work and for his powers of concentration. It earned him the nickname “Ironman”, among his contemporaries. “You saw the will and desire to be one of the best,” recalls Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who played him twice. “He was never a big server, but he was a work horse.”
Davydenko never forgot how lucky he was. For it had been Eckhard Oehms, a German businessman and later his agent, who realised his potential as a 14-year-old on a trip through Russia and offered to move the Davydenkos to Salmtal, Germany, where unlimited tennis courts beckoned. It was a massive change in fortunes. But Davydenko didn’t let up on his strict regimen. “He played like a robot, like a wall,” admits his compatriot Teymuraz Gabashvili. “He practised really hard, he worked liked a machine. He played inside the baseline and never retreated. When he was at his best, the stronger you hit the ball the faster it came back. His backhand was unbelievable. His speed and the way he took the ball early were two of his greatest strengths.”
Incredibly the indefatigable retriever, who was renowned as one of the fastest players on the ATP World Tour and was a tricky opponent to play against on any surface, added no more than 10lbs to his lithe 5’10” frame throughout his pro career. He regularly played more matches in a season than any other player and between 2008 and 2010 he recorded 22 victories over Top 10 opponents. He picked up the 2008 Miami Open, one of three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crowns, using just one racquet. He got it strung after each of his victories, including Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal. “Once he was in the Top 10, he believed he could be a Top 10 player,” says Kafelnikov, who became the first Russian to rank World No. 1 in May 1999. “People tried to avoid his name in the draw.” He also helped Russia to the 2006 Davis Cup.
Arguably, though, some of his finest performances came in late 2009 and early 2010, which catapulted him into the spotlight he had tried so hard to avoid. “At his top level, he was an unbelievable player,” remembers Verdasco. “He didn’t give you time to think, he was a very fast player and a hard worker. It was very difficult to play against him.” Jarkko Nieminen, who is 33 like Davydenko, adds, “His movement, baseline and return game were his strengths. He didn’t give you anything for free. He could take the ball very early and he played with a great pace and tempo. You always had to run and defend a lot.”
By improving his service technique and by fine-tuning his volleying skills, to back up his accomplished knack of seamlessly transitioning from the baseline to the net, Davydenko got hot during the 2009 Asian swing. Having finished runner-up at the prestigious season finale, Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai, one year earlier, Davydenko arrived in London for the first Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at The O2 in a confident mood. In a ‘group of death’, that included defending champion Novak Djokovic, the Russian defeated Nadal and Robin Soderling, prior to beating Roger Federer in the semi-finals and the reigning US Open champion, Juan Martin del Potro, 6-3, 6-4 in the final. He earned the biggest cheque of his career, a cool $1.51 million.
When he dispatched Federer and Nadal again, en route to the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, in the first week of the 2010 ATP World Tour season, he arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open as a major contender for the title. With the experience of four Grand Slam championship semi-final appearances on his resume — 2005, 2007 Roland Garros and 2006-07 US Open — he started to believe. Forty five minutes into his quarter-final against Federer, a player he had lost to 12 times in a row prior to his recent change in fortunes, Davydenko led 6-2, 3-0. But, in the fifth game of the second set, Federer found his serve. Davydenko went into a tailspin and 13 straight games went the Swiss’ way. Federer eventually won 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5 in three hours and 36 minutes.
Sadly, at his next tournament, the 2010 ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, he landed on his wrist in a straight sets semi-final loss to Robin Soderling. Although he won the 21st — and final — title of his career at Munich in May 2011, Davydenko’s days of consistent peak performance were numbered. Towards the end of the 2010 season, Davydenko dropped out of the Top 10 — the elite club he had been a member of for more than five-and-a-half years. Stan Wawrinka admits, “I always admired the level of his game. He was so fast and was a big fighter. There was so much speed in his game. I felt that he was one of the fastest players I’ve ever faced.” Says Dmitry Tursunov, "He was a very good competitor and very good at analyzing and improving his own game. He maximised his own game, I think more than any other in the Top 5. He was very methodical; he went out there to get the job done. I think he was very comfortable in his own skin."
Davydenko always sought a simple life. With his wife, Irina, whom he married after a three-year courtship in November 2006, their two-year-old daughter, Ekaterina, and his coach brother — 10 years his senior — he was able to play tennis and enjoy his life, largely free of widespread attention. "He was pretty fun [and] very laid back," admits Tursunov. "He didn't need a lot of material things to be happy." Today, after a farewell ceremony at the Kremlin Cup by Bank of Moscow, where he won three titles, he can enjoy his retirement safe in the knowledge that he will be long remembered alongside the greats of Russian tennis. “It is bad news from Russian tennis,” says Gabashvili. “He was one of the greatest in the world.” Says Kafelnikov, “People in Russia love him.”