Nikolay Davydenko, Leader of the ‘Almost Elite’
by Abe Kuijl | June 9th, 2007, 3:33 pm

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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24 Comments for Nikolay Davydenko, Leader of the ‘Almost Elite’

FloridaMan Says:

I think people reading far too much into Fed’s win. Rafa is playing way better here than he did in Hamburg. That should have be the first sign. If he plays like that, Fed has no chance at all. The only glimmer of hope, is if Nadal suddenly goes back to the way he played in Hamburg. Which I doubt, because unlike those weeks, Nadal has been winning straight-set matches only every other day. So it will be Nadal in 3, and only possibly 4 sets, in the final on Sunday.

FloridaMan Says:

Sorry – this post was about Davydenko, so I shall respond to it. I think Davydenko is an excellent player, and possibly would have won 1 grand slam, in the few years between Sampras and Federer. I like his groundstroke game, and the fact that he truly is not afraid of anyone. He’s getting better and better. He can be a threat. I look for him to continue the big results in the future.

penise Says:

i agree rafa looks unbeatable
we’ll know during the first set; if we see the shanked/sprayed forehands from fed (trying to end the points) it’ll be rafa in straights

Giner Says:

I think I spotted Jelena Jankovic in that club…

Skorocel Says:

Absolutely agree with the article! The similar situation actually occured a year ago in their quarterfinal match at the Aussie Open – in the 3rd set, the Russian had setpoints (to lead 2 sets to 1), but he simply wasn’t able to convert them…

grendel Says:

Davydenko was magnificent, just a little lacking in self-belief, as you say. Credit should be given to Fed here for his amazing gutsyness. Time and again he saved break points with tremendous serves, once doing 3 aces in a row, I believe when love – 40 down – and this, on a day when generally his first serves were poor (good second serves, though).
We all know what worshippers at the shrine of Nadal think of the forthcoming final – they can’t resist gloating even before the event (unlike their beloved master who, as usual, plays it all down, suggesting he might lose even if he plays a very good match – we know Nadal doesn’t really believe this, so why does he say it?). But what I think would be very interesting to know is what do Fed fans think, having seen the semi-final. Personally, I thought it was a bit worrying in a way – endless unforced errors. On the other hand, great courage – and an admittedly great opponent to contend with. But unless Federer really has something in reserve, it is very hard indeed to see him beating the swaggering Spaniard. A combination of Federer’s and Davydenko’s main strengths – now, that might do the trick! Davydenko is so steady and powerful, Federer has the self-belief and the occasional moments of inspired improvisation which can turn a match. It doesn’t seem as if what is required to beat Nadal on clay exists in any one person. Did anyone see anything in the semifinals to persuade them otherwise?

BobbyB Says:

Davydenko has been playing at the top of his game and I thought he wore Nadal out a little for Federer in Rome. Mary Pierce and John McEnroe both talked about Davydenko’s lack of emotion when he was playing against Nadal there. It does seem to be lacking.
Although I wouldn’t bet against Nadal, I think Federer is playing much better on the Roland Garros clay than he did last year-yesterday’s match excluded. If he can get ahead and win the first set, I think he’ll upset Nadal. If it goes five, it will be Nadal. I’ve never seen anyone not on steroids in better shape.

samps Says:

Hell, he should have won. Fed was brilliant at the breakpoints and what not, but this guy did miss a few chances. It wasnt all down to Fed I mean. He choked well and hard at the crucial points. He has an equally good forehand and backhand which makes him very potent but thats not enough against the top two players whe attitude is a slight issue.

And grendel, if you saw Nadal’s complete interview perhaps you would stop with the snide remarks. Unlike Fed, who’s been playing himself up, bucking himself up and whatever the hell not. Which is understandable because he needs the confidence. So he quotes crap like “in the past once I beat someone I ve figured them out”?(implying that Hamburg was it). Also I think its just how Rafa speaks. Its not just when Fed is involved, its with every player. The “maybe I ll win maybe I wont” is a generic statement that he always uses. Maybe he’s less happy about being forthcoming in whipping his next opponent. Maybe he likes to ease off the pressure.
Fed loves to talk about “figuring Nadal out” to buck himself up (and Hell, maybe he has but why insinuate about it so much if you really have?) all the time and maybe Nadal likes to equivocate about his chances to reduce the pressure. I find the former irritating and the latter tolerable. So thats my preference.

you Says:

Nalbandian Coria in da house

realist Says:

everyone bags davydenko because he gets close to beating federer but doesn’t win, well isn’t that better than getting killed by him every time like most of the other top players?

guys like hewitt, roddick were just lucky they got their slams before fed started rolling, and look how they get absolutely embarassed by fed now? davs always gives a good match,it’s not his fault he’s peaking in an era where there’s basically 2 dominant no.1s at the same time.

fed played really well after the first couple games, and dav was right there with him, a pretty awesome effort against the ‘greatest ever’

though dav can break fed a lot, he probably even has a better return game, what people don’t seem to realise is that he doesn’t have the serve like fed to easily serve out games. that’s why serving for sets/tiebreaks aren’t sure things with him, esp on clay.

grendel Says:

yes, if Davydenko had a great serve, would anyone ever beat him? Of course, you can play this game several ways. If federer could cope with shoulder high backhands like Berdych can, if Nalbandian come to think of it, had a great serve, if Safin decided that fun meant hours in the gymn and on the pracrice courts instead of in the nightclubs,-doubtless there are endless permutations. But there is a serious point: serving is so different to evrything else in tennis, it’s huge importance in the winning of a match seems perhaps lopsided . John McEnroe, one of the alltime great servers, thinks there should only be one serve. Mind you, I love watching Karlovich….

samps Says:

Nadal wins! Superb match with some superb points esp the last set. Fed played pretty well but I dont think he can bag RG now.

Also grendel, your point is spot on. The serve is an obviously fundamental part of the game and saying that “if only he had a good serve” is not a very meaningful statement. Same for any aspect of the game including attitude and determination.

Skorocel Says:

Samps, was it really that superb? No doubt it was a better encounter than a year ago, but still, both players (especially Nadal) looked rather nervous in the first 2 sets I guess…

Anyway, those breakpoints in the 1st set simply killed Fed’s confidence! Zero out of 10 – that’s unbelievable! I guess it also had something to do with the possibility to win the FO for the first time (well, it had to!), since at least 5 of those breakpoints were more than makable (that is Nadal didn’t play anything extraordinary in these rallies), yet Federer wasn’t able to capitalize…

Summed it up, it was almost a clear reprise of the last year’s final – Fed certainly had a shot, yet that lethal combination of Nadal + the thought of winning that eluding GS got to him… Had he won that 1st set, I’m 100 % sure he would have done everything to lead 2 sets to love (I guess the last year’s final, where Fed literally GAVE Nadal that all important break in the 2nd game after winning the 1st set, was enough of a lesson for Fed). If it was 2 sets to love, the pressure would have been on the Spaniard, but that’s would have been, of course…

Ironically for Fed, despite the fact that he was serving like a rookie in the first 2 sets, he was still able to steal a set, whereas in the 3rd and 4th he served around 70-80 % – yet Nadal was able to get that all important break in each set… That clearly indicates Nadal wasn’t at his best in the 1st half of the match (where Fed actually missed all those breakpoints), whereas in the 2nd half the Spaniard was without any doubt the better player… I’m sure Fed will be kicking his ass if he reviews that match on tape!

Though I would be glad to see him lift that elusive trophy, after seeing today’s match, I NO LONGER believe Fed can do this by having to overcome Nadal – IMPOSSIBLE!

grendel Says:

In a year’s time, Nadal will be just 22. Even stronger, and with a more varied game. Federer will be nearly 27 – bound to have lost some pace. Mentally, he must be a bit scarred. Like poor old Lendl with Wimbledon, he’s going to feel the obligation to keep trying. But it’s not on, is it. Federer had his chances, slim perhaps, but they were there, and he failed to take them. Federer is obliged to say he now knows he can win, just as Nadal remarks with genuine sympathy that he knows Federer will win R.G. one day. But deep down, both know this is nonsense. The logic is simply inescapable. The Federer/Nadal rivalry on clay courts has concluded, permanantly, and now shifts to grass and hard courts. It’s going to be fascinating to see how long Fed can hold Nadal off for. Not too long, I suspect. That doesn’t mean Sampras is safe. The way I see it, Nadal will become number one certainly before next Spring, but Federer will sneak in with a grand slam here, and possibly one there. It’s going to be real touch and go. The tiger is wounded, perhaps fatally, but he will still do damage. The only question is: how much?

gasquetfan Says:

Davydenko did not “convincingly rout” Canas in the quarterfinal. Each set was very close and the points were long. Davydenko was forced to play his absolute best tennis in order to win.
Furthermore, Kolya is not an expert on clay, and therefore I believe that his best shot at beating Federer is on fast indoor courts, which is his favorite surface and where he is almost certainly the second best player in the world. On fast indoor courts, at the end of the exceedingly long tennis calender, he could score an upset over an exhausted Federer. Interestingly, Kolya has a losing record against top-50 players, which alludes to his lack of a killer instinct. He seems to be a product of a bygone era, interested solely in making money, even when all of the players in the top 5 make millions of dollars each year.
On a separate note, while I love Gasquet, he will never reach the echelon of “almost elite”. He has only half the killer instinct of Kolya or even Canas, and is hopelessly unfit. By the latter stages of a tournament, particularly a slam, he is spent. Throughout his career, he has only beaten three top-ten players. While watching him play, one can see the pressure in his eyes, a pressure that he has had to deal with since appearing on magazine covers as a junior.
Personally, my picks for the almost-elite would include the likes of ljubicic, robredo, murray, gonzalez and haas.

samps Says:

Well Skorocel, I agree it wasnt that superb. I guess I meant the last two sets which produced some really good tennis especially with Fed serving much better. There were fabulous shots from both. Some superb rallies and the best shots were a crosscourt Slice by Fed which just grazed the line for a winner and Rafa had no chance and a crosscourt backhand winner on the rise by Rafa in some ridiculous body position.
But they were so many excellent shots from both. Oh there was this crazy down the line shot from Rafa in the first set which so so Spun it actually looked well out before it turned in! I am not sure Rafa expected that to happen.

Also the surprising thing was how much Rafa has improved his serve both with the percentage of Ist serves in and the quality of serves in.

And grendel while I dont think Fed has a chance in RG I think he’s easily going to win 14 slams. I figure about 16-17 as the right number in all. I dont see his dominance changing in other courts yet maybe next year.

samps Says:

And one more thing Skorocel, I think one of the problems for Fed is how he plays is game. He plays so fabulous in a set and the opponent is whithered away mentally. I guess thats the difference with Nadal. He remains at a fairly even keel mentally(and physically of course) for the whole match which changes what Fed needs to do, esp on clay.

wrexel Says:

For me, this signals the end for Fed. The more times he is beaten, the more the aura of invincibility will be chipped away and he will be seen as beatable by the Almost Elite and certainly the newcomers to the tour. Each of the great champs had a moment to signify the handing over to the new guard – some examples, the most famous being McEnroe over Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon, Lendl beaten by Sampras in the 1990 US Open, and lastly Sampras by Federer himself in 2001 Wimbledon.

samps Says:

I dont know about that wrexel. The notion of aura of invincibility is secondary to on-court performances. Nadal apparently lost that aura after losing in Hamburg but he was more dominant at this RG than last year. After all the ‘aura’ is built by dominant performances to start with. Unless Fed’s level drops considerably (not something I expect to see this year) I dont think such factors should matter.
More importantly he was hardly the favourite on clay anyway. He’s always considered second best to Rafa. So there was no aura to start with. Ok if he loses in Wimbledon, now thats different(though unlikely this year).

samps Says:

Sorry, to add, I dont see Fed on a slide or a decline or anything. Except the Davy match, he was actually pretty good overall and doesen’t look like he is going to drop level anywhere. He has a few more forehand errors than he has in the past but its not something that is going to matter. He ll win Wimby for sure but will have a fight in US though I think he’ll win there too. Rafa should improve his performances though. If he makes the Wimby final its a sign that he’s really there to stay (Though he cant possibly beat Fed there this year). And same for US open. The signs are there however.

zola Says:

congratulations . You picked Nadal to win when almost everyone else picked Federer. Excellent tennis sense. Keep writing!

naresh Says:

rightly said samps. nadal was always the favourite at the french and after the semifinal match fed had, i dont think any one really thought he had a chance. but still he came out fighting and made a match of it{1st 2 sets atleast}. i think if he had won the 1st set, it would’ve been a different match.its a lot more mental out there and if nadal was 2 sets thinks fed would’ve gobbled him up, but the loss of that, brought out the fatigue in fed !anyways..way too many “unforced” errors, to win any grand slam, leave alone french !

Skorocel Says:

Samps, all those shots you mentioned were really exciting, yes. Actually, I was a bit surprised how many times Fed was able to really hurt Nadal with his backhand – something, which he never used to in the past… That’s I guess the only thing in which he improved compared to last year, but it still wasn’t enough, unfortunately… As you’ve said, Nadal is simply too consistent both mentally and physically, and that’s Fed’s problem… Mats Wilander actually mentioned the same thing in that “legendary” post-RG-final interview last year, and I can only agree with him… Even with that “balls issue” – he was deadly right! Some Fed fans may feel rather offended by hearing such “rude” words, but after seeing yesterday’s final, I can only agree with Mats…

Tejuz Says:

Zola/ Abe..
tennis sense in backing Nadal for french or backing Fed for wimbledon isnt somethin great.. its just common sense. They are the best players out there and almost everybody knew what the outcome was.. its just that we Fed fans wished the outcome was something else.

also the semi-final candidates were the 4 best players on tour(clay included) at the moment.

but anyway.. wel done.. even if it wasnt was still correct as expected.

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