Nikolay Davydenko, Leader of the ‘Almost Elite’
When I wrote my French Open previews two weeks ago and predicted a semifinal run for Nikolay Davydenko, I didn’t think too long about his possible match against Roger Federer. I mean, what was there to think about? There was no way the Russian, trailing 8-0 head-to-head against the Swiss No.1, would be a real threat to Federer, was there?
Before their encounter took to the court yesterday, I started thinking about the match. ‘Wait a second, hasn’t Davydenko been playing the best tennis of his career these past few weeks, almost upsetting Rafael Nadal in Rome?’
The world No.4 had only dropped one set in the tournament before facing Federer, convincingly routing Guillermo Canas in straights along the way. All of a sudden I started to feel a slight rush. ‘This French Open might actually provide an exciting match!’
I figured if Davydenko was ever to beat Roger Federer, it would have to be on this Friday. Combining the facts that the Russian was in great shape and the match was to be played on clay – not Federer’s favorite surface, so I have been told – I actually believed an upset was possible. If Davydenko played his best, Federer would surely need to bring his A-game to withstand the challenge.
The first set got underway, and before Federer knew what was going on, Davydenko had powered himself to a 4-2, 0-40 lead. It turned out to be the turning point in the match. Federer blasted three excellent first serves to get back to deuce. Davydenko failed to go up a double break, and subsequently, dropped his next service game on love by hitting four backhand unforced errors. Serving at 5-6, he again wasted four backhands to lose the set.
In the second set, Davydenko broke serve at 4-all, but then failed to close it out. At 5-4 30-30, he hit a forehand long, followed by an easy backhand miss wide. In the tiebreaker, a couple more unforced errors helped Federer to win the set.
Davydenko deserves credit for his persistence, but even in the third set, with apparent less pressure than in the first two, the Russian again faltered, at 5-3, when he had the opportunity to narrow the two set margin.
The match was heading for a second tiebreak, which Federer won by hitting a clever drop shot return at 8-7, putting Davydenko off balance and forcing another error from the fourth seed to win the match.
And so it turned out to be just another straight sets win for Roger Federer. But this time, his opponent really has only himself to blame for the loss. Like Federer admitted in his presser, he could have lost each of the three sets they played. I don’t think Davydenko will ever get a better shot at beating Roger Federer in a Grand Slam tournament. There’s a good chance he’ll never get closer to reaching a final of a major.
Nikolay Davydenko has reached eight Grand Slam quarterfinals in his career. On half of those occassions, he advanced to the last four. More often than not, Davydenko is the routine pick for a Slam quarterfinal, but from that point on, he becomes the routine loser.
Analysing the game of the Ukrainian born Russian, there are not many weaknesses in his repertoire. Sure, Davydenko isn’t a great volleyer, but who is nowadays? His service doesn’t rank among the best, but neither does Nadal’s. Fact of the matter is, Davydenko is about as solid as it gets from the baseline and he can hit with extreme pace, but the man lacks the one aspect required to become a Slam contender, the killer’s instinct.
Therefore, I’d like to call Davydenko the leader of the ‘almost elite’. A group of players who have all the shots in the book to win major trophies, but just can’t get their head set to winning them. They have a nose for the big points, but when they sniff them, they miss them.
Tommy Haas is a respected member of the group as well. Marat Safin wants in, but he has already won two Slams, so he doesn’t qualify. Sorry, Marat. Richard Gasquet is on the fast train to joining, but the gifted Frenchman still has a few years to develop.
For Nikolay Davydenko, that ship has sailed.
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