A Tribute to Kolya: Russian Tennis Star Nikolay Davydenko Tries to Come Back from Injury, Again

Having just finished Jon Wertheim’s masterful book, “Strokes of Genius,” about the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final, I’ve been brooding about how the big boys in men’s pro tennis get not only most of the prize money, but also nearly all the attention and ink. Heaven knows Rafa and Roger have earned their acclaim, but most devoted tennis fans have a favorite player whose claims to more serious notice have gone largely unrecognized for a variety of reasons – reasons their partisans are usually eager to talk about.

In my case, it’s Nikolay “Kolya” Davydenko, the soon-to-be 30-year-old Ukrainian born Russian whose ranking has slipped to No. 41 this week after a career high of No. 3 in 2006 and six consecutive years inside the ATP World Tour Top 10.

Here’s one of the reasons why. Did you know that Davydenko’s winning percentage in ATP tour finals is unsurpassed among players with 20 or more titles? His 20-6 mark represents a 77% winning percentage. By comparison World No. 1 Rafael Nadal is 43-15 in finals (74%) and arguably the greatest of all time, the GOAT himself, Roger Federer is 67-29 (69.8%).

Before you rush to point out (fairly, it’s true) that Nadal and Federer have won 26 Grand Slam titles between them to Davydenko’s grand total of zero, consider also that head to head, Kolya is 6-4 lifetime versus Rafa, including the last four in a row. (How many players with at least 10 matches against Nadal can say that? As far as I can tell after combing the ATP databases, NONE.)

Against Federer, Davydenko’s record is less impressive than his head to head edge over Nadal, despite the seeming contradiction of Rafa now owning a 15-8 lifetime record against Federer. Davydenko lost twelve straight matches to Federer between 2002 and 2008 before finally defeating him. The two-match Davydenko winning streak (if two wins can be called a streak) at the end of 2009 and the start of 2010 has reverted to a three-match losing streak since then. What does it all mean? Go figure.

As I write this Davydenko has just lost in the first round of the 2011 ATP 1000 event in Monte Carlo to No. 63 Robin Haase of The Netherlands in a match that lasted almost three hours. The only silver lining in the defeat is that Davydenko has no ranking points to defend this week because he was injured last year and was not able to play Monte Carlo.

The loss in Monte Carlo brings his 2011 record to a disappointing 6-8. Thoughts of retirement must be stirring, though in his postmatch interview he declined to comment on the possibility.

Comeback Player of the Year?

2011 was supposed to be a better year than 2010, the beginning of yet another comeback for a player who has overcome several serious injuries during his twelve year career. Indeed, in the first tournament of the year in Doha, Davydenko beat Nadal in the semifinals, just as he had in 2010, and faced Federer again in the final, losing to him there this year after defeating him in the 2010 final.

Since then, wins have been tough to come by. Davydenko lost in the first round of his next three tournaments – to the steadily improving German Florian Mayer in the Australian Open, to Michael Llodra in Rotterdam, and to former Top 10 Frenchman Gilles Simon in Marseille. As for the other losses since then, even the best players on the tour recognize they could lose on a given day to No. 7 Czech Tomas Berdych or Swiss No. 14 Stan Wawrinka. But in the not-so-old days, Davydenko would not have lost in straight sets to No. 40 South African Kevin Anderson or to No. 63 Haase, as he has in his last two tournaments.

A History of Injuries Overcome

In February of 2010 Davydenko fractured his left wrist in Rotterdam in a fall during a loss to Robin Soderling, his eighth major injury since he turned pro. A month later, the injury was finally accurately diagnosed in Indian Wells after the right-handed Davydenko had played two more matches trying to use his left hand to steady and drive his usually reliable, often impressive two-handed backhand.

After missing three months with the broken wrist, he came back with both wrists taped and went 13-13 the rest of the year, reaching six quarterfinals, but without another title. He wasn’t talking about his left wrist, but his results were saying plenty compared to the year before, when he earned a career-high $3.6 million, went 9-6 against Top 10 opponents, and ended the year by winning the ATP Master’s event in London.

In 2008 and 2009 Davydenko was plagued by a series of nagging leg and foot injuries after being more or less free of serious injury in his first five years on the tour (a right wrist injury at Wimbledon in 2006 being the only notable exception). After he retired in Estoril in 2008 with a left-leg injury in a match against Federer the injuries – and their effects ‘” started mounting up.

In January of 2009 Davydenko had injured his left heel in Chennai and had missed the Australian Open (breaking his streak of 29 straight Grand Slam tournament appearances). The injury led to him compiling a meager (by his standards) 7-5 match mark during the first five months of the year before going 50-13 for the rest of the year with four titles. It was the eighth straight year in which he had won at least one title. Even so, he finished outside the Top 10 for the first time since 2004 at No. 22.

Injuries explained a good deal. He missed another month at the end of the summer of 2009 after retiring against Robin Soderling at the U.S. Open with a left thigh injury. (Davydenko had also retired against Roddick in Madrid in May with what turned out to be a relatively minor leg injury.) When he came back to the tour on its swing through Asia, he surprised everyone by winning the stop in Kuala Lumpur and then the big ATP 1000 event in Shanghai, defeating Djokovic in the semis and Nadal in straight sets in the final ‘” all despite three debilitating injuries during the course of the year.

A Retrospective Look at 2009

It’s worth looking at those two major tournaments concluding 2009 in more detail. Unless he can turn things around this year, they will probably represent the apex of Davydenko’s achievement as a singles player.

In November 2009, after five years in glittering Shanghai, the season-ending championships of the ATP men’s professional tennis tour moved to London. The finals are to be held each autumn through 2013 in one of the main venues for the 2012 London Olympics, The O2 arena in north Greenwich, six miles east of central London.

Even though the two events are completely unrelated, strictly speaking, the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, as the year-end championships are now known in their London incarnation, provided an early glimpse of Britain’s eagerness to host a major high-profile international sporting event ‘” something other than the annual Wimbledon fortnight, of course ‘” in anticipation of the upcoming Olympic Games, the first to be held in England since 1948. Adding to the underlying sense of connection between these two spectacles, Londoners were reminded that October 31 marked the start of the countdown of the final thousand days to the Games.

An All-time Attendance Record for Indoor Tennis

By almost any measure, the 2009 ATP year-end event in London was a huge success, starting with the little publicized fact that the tourney broke the all-time attendance record for an indoor tennis event with 256,830 watching the matches over eight days.

Television ratings were a bit more difficult to gauge worldwide, but there was a seventy-five per cent increase in online viewing over the previous year, to more than eight million visits, according to the ATP. Tennis television ratings in the U.S. have continued to decline even faster than the supremacy of the American male players. The Nielsen ratings for the U.S. Open finals dropped more than forty per cent over the past decade, since Andre Agassi and Serena Williams won the singles titles in 1999. But the game seems to be flourishing internationally, spurred by the increasing ease of online viewing.

A Week of Surprises On Court

It was a week of surprises on court in London, too, including a significant championship at last for the still much underrated and long-suffering Russian Nikolay Davydenko, the runner-up to Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in the 2008 year-end championship in Shanghai.

In addition to posting wins over each of the Grand Slam tournament champions in 2009 during the week, Davydenko finally defeated Roger Federer for the first time ‘” after twelve consecutive losses. In fairness, Federer had already clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking with the points he received from his two wins before reaching the second weekend in London, but Kolya won their semifinal fair and square in three sets in what many observers quickly praised one of the best matches of the entire year.

It was a triumph that recalled the late Vitas Gerulaitis at his post-match press conference at the 1979 Master’s event after his first win over Jimmy Connors following sixteen consecutive losses. He insisted, with that big, unforgettable smile, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis seventeen times in a row.”

The startling results in London raised a number of interesting questions about the top players and their immediate futures. The 2009 ATP finals featured the year’s top eight players in both doubles and singles, except for injured American Andy Roddick. The year’s No. 1 ranking was at stake in both singles and doubles, and there was enough prize money on the table – US$5 million – to sustain everyone’s attention. The American team of Bob and Mike Bryan, who were profiled in The New Yorker during the U.S. Open this year, won the doubles title and the year-end No. 1 ranking for the sixth time.

In the abbreviated language of the text messages streaming incessantly out of The O2 during all the matches in which I sat among the crowds, this rated as only a BTW headline in light of all the Bryan’s doubles success, whereas the string of Davydenko upsets actually provoked one tennis wag to headline his annual wrap-up piece on the World Tour Final singles result “WTF Happened.”

The venue turned out to be a big hit with the fans. The seating configuration of The O2 for tennis was set at 17,500; and while the upper level is quite a distance from the court, there wasn’t really a bad seat in the house. For concerts the arena can seat as many as 25,000. As the heart of what has become perhaps London’s premier entertainment complex, The O2 was to be the site of the fifty concerts that Michael Jackson was preparing for when he died. And no, in case you’re wondering, The O2 is not some hyperbaric performance-enhancing chamber that has morphed into a stadium. It’s the old, renovated Millenium Dome that Americans are likely to remember, if at all, as the site of London’s fifteen minutes of fame during another worldwide countdown, on New Year’s Eve 1999 – or maybe from the Bond movie “The World is Not Enough,” where the opening chase down the Thames ends up on that white domed synthetic roof with all the funny yellow toothpick-like supports sticking out. That’s it, right there on the big bend in the river that defines north Greenwich (the stadium can be reached by water taxis and shuttles as easily as by the Tube if one doesn’t mind a somewhat more than bracing breeze on a November evening).

I dwell on the location for a moment because the name will not help you find the place. British sports fans, like their American cousins, now live in a confusing welter of perpetually changing stadium names. You will not be surprised to learn that the present name of The O2 comes from a sponsorship deal, and you will also probably not be surprised that the sponsor company’s name has already changed since the deal was signed. (In the two years I have lived in San Francisco since moving back from Tucson, I have seen what seemed like the still freshly painted Monster Park signs — as in the job search site Monster.com ‘” removed from the Bayshore freeway as the City Council threw up its hands and declared, “We’re just going to call it Candlestick Park again from now on, no matter what. It’s just too confusing to keep changing it.”)

In 2007 the United Kingdom’s largest telecommunications company O2 Plc. (now Telefonica Europe Plc.) signed an agreement with the venue’s latest and most committed developer, the Anschultz Entertainment Group, to call the whole entertainment complex, restaurants and all, The O2. The London Olympic Games Organizing Committee (now recognized universally throughout the U.K. simply as LOGOC, the new Transformer), was mindful of the Millenium Dome’s embarrassing, white-elephant history and its ongoing “development” plans in putting forth the 2005 Olympic bid. The stadim was called simply and safely North Greenwich Arena 2. (Some hardcore North American soccer fans may recall first seeing the O2 name when the Arsenal football club began sporting O2 on the front of their jerseys a couple of years ago, perplexing many of us who wondered whether it represented a mysterious new product endorsement – bottled oxygen replacing bottled water? – or some new quasi-scientific marketing mantra. Who knew?).

The ATP World Tour Finals feature an afternoon and evening session of tennis each day, with a doubles match preceding each singles match. The 2009 doubles matches were consistently high-quality affairs, decided by the thinnest of margins and featuring stunning power and speed, intricate rallies and drop shots, and lightning-fast exchanges at the net, making one wonder again if the real “problem” with doubles is simply that the ATP hasn’t figured out how to promote its many virtues and stars. Those at the top of the doubles rankings really are superb players with the full repertoire of strokes and skills, not just specialists who can’t really play the game as good singles players can.

The doubles matches began at 12:30 and 7:30 p.m., each day with the singles match not to commence before 2:30 p.m. or 8:45 p.m., respectively. The doubles used no-ad scoring and the match-tie-break in lieu of a full final set, the same scoring system that the ATP has stuck to so doggedly since adopting it last year, amid unceasing cries of protest from the traditionalists. The problem in London wasn’t how long the doubles matches lasted, it was that the evening singles matches were scheduled to start so late. On at least two of the first weeknights, the crowds leaving the arena near midnight to catch the final Jubilee line trains scheduled to pass through North Greenwich Station were subjected to more strenuous “crowd control” measures by London police than even they might have wished. The crush and the manhandling tended to spoil what had otherwise been a great evening. Furthermore, Neil Harman, the highly respected tennis correspondent of The Times of London, noted that his print colleagues were routinely missing deadlines because of the relatively late evening singles start.

As in years past, the format for the first six days of the year-end finals was an unusual one in today’s pro tennis. The eight players and doubles teams were divided into two groups by a draw. The members in each group then proceeded to play a round robin, a term it appears we cannot attribute to the English, after all, as much as they would seem like the usual suspects in such a case. The origin of the term seems rather to be derived from a seventeenth century French practice of petitioning the Crown by a means that allowed the signatories to avoid identification as ring leaders at the top of a list of names by signing instead in a ribbon-shaped “ruban rond” pattern. Some quick studies in the Royal Navy eager to communicate frankly but safely with their own superiors apparently adopted the practice not long thereafter, so it seems only fitting that some kind of round robin should end up on the banks of the Thames again.

Alas, the only French contender for a place in the final eight this year, the enormously appealing Cassius-Clay-look-alike Jo Wilfried Tsonga, missed the cut at the eleventh hour by failing to defend his indoor title in Paris in the final ATP regular season tournament. His picture appeared nonetheless among the featured players on all the pre-tournament banners, ads, and ticket folders. So whose picture wasn’t included among the eight finalists? Of course, it was Nikolay Davydenko’s, who seems to have spent his entire career shouting “hello” outside the high walls of the tennis world’s persisting indifference to his steadily growing list of notable achievements.

One can’t help but wonder if Davydenko had followed Andre Agassi’s example and added a hair weave as impressive as the subtleties of his game that he would have had at least a steady racquet endorsement before 2010 (Dunlop finally came through) – if not the attention lavished on his one crucial year-older bad-boy predecessor Marat Safin ‘” not to mention all those long-legged blonde Russian girls who have followed Anna Kournikova out onto the world’s tennis stages during the past two decades.

Davydenko once quipped, when asked why Prince didn’t pay him to endorse the rackets he has played so faithfully and conspicuously for years, “They gave all the money to Sharapova” (that is, Maria, formerly a top-ranked player on the women’s tour until all her shoulder injuries began.)

At the end of the round robin phase of the ATP finals, the players with the best records advanced to the tournament’s second weekend and what the British call the knock-out rounds, the traditional best two-of-three set semifinals and finals. Getting out of the round robin and into the semifinals proved more complicated than the ATP organizers probably had hoped. As it turned out both Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco of Spain lost all three of their round robin matches, an outcome that would have been difficult to imagine as play began, even knowing that they were both looking eagerly ahead to defending the Davis Cup team title they had won in 2008 on the weekend following the ATP finals.

The other three players in both 2009 singles groups managed to end up with identical 2-1 win-loss records, invoking the tie-breaking formula that sent local hero Andy Murray packing before the final weekend, still staring at his calculator, trying to figure out what had happened. The semifinalists were determined, first, by won-loss record, then by looking at the number of sets each player won and lost, and finally since those figures, too, were the same, at 5-4, for all three players in each group (talk about evenly matched!), the next tie breaker was the difference in total games won and lost. Murray trailed Del Potro by a single digit in overall games won minus games lost, 45-43 to 44-43. Don’t ask what the tiebreaker would have been if the game differential had been tied. A coin toss? Penalty kicks? Thank goodness we didn’t have to go there.

The first big surprise of the week was the opening day’s crowds. Early word was that ticket sales had been going well, and 34,937 turned out for the first two sessions, almost as many as a good day at Wimbledon. Any question about whether the summer Wimbledon throngs would leave the comforts of home and hearth in near winter to come out through the cold and wet for tennis indoors were answered resoundingly as advance ticket sales climbed steadily toward the 250,000 mark (a complete sell-out would have been 260,000). The arena was packed for each night session and the days were impressively full, too. Not bad for a new kid in town out in the Docklands. And there were no strawberries and cream on offer either, though plenty of hand-warming coffee and tea, as well as heartier stuff.

The British fans that I talked with during the week seemed genuinely proud of the way The O2 was showcasing the tennis. The whole carefully-engineered-for-TV blue-screen pallor of the court and its muted surroundings were a bit relentless for my tastes (I hummed a few bars of tribute to Joni Mitchell and even drew a map of Canada on the back of my first coaster) because the audience surrounding the court was left in near total darkness. It all seemed a bit too insistent and overly theatrical to me, even on television. Call me “old school,” but I strongly prefer tennis outdoors in natural light on a semblance of a natural surface to the WWE-inspired thunderdome atmospheres that have evolved for most indoor professional sporting events. Roger Federer seemed completely undone by the subtleties of the lighting at the outset of his match against Verdasco later that first evening, missing balls entirely that he was clearly having trouble seeing, but he got used to the conditions faster than some of the rest of us.

There was plenty of drama during the week without the enhancements added by the non-stop “son et lumiere” eruptions, especially the practice of flashing Break Point or Challenge or Set Point or Match Point in huge letters of blinding white light around the quarter-mile long semicircular light board that ringed the arena between the lower and upper levels. Add my vote to what I am sure must have been those of the players to lose that annoying distraction in coming years.

Luckily, the tennis lived up to the high expectations of the crowds by getting interesting from the get-go. The opening singles match on that first Sunday afternoon of the tournament quickly became the hottest ticket in London when it was announced the week before that the newly crowned U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina would play the opening match against British favourite, as the less rabid tabloids tend to say, Andy Murray of Scotland in his first appearance on court in England since Wimbledon.

As soon as the match ended, it rapidly became the second hottest ticket of the week when the Murray round robin match against Roger Federer was announced for the Tuesday evening session. Murray had missed the five-week Asian swing of the ATP tour following the U.S. Open with a wrist injury (this before girlfriend Kim Sears reportedly left him in part because he was spending seven hours a day playing video games when not on the practice court), but he had returned from the injury and won an indoor event in Valencia two weeks before the London finals.

The second big surprise was the crowd noise during the matches. I’ve attended several Wimbledons over the past thirty years, though not since Murray burst onto the scene, raising the decibel level at his matches personally as well as through the crowd’s support, and I’ve never heard anything at Wimbledon for Tim Henman or anyone else like the roar that poured from the throats of the overwhelmingly British crowd for Murray as he prepared to serve to Del Potro. Like the good concert venue that it is, The O2 was rockin. Afterward, Murray said, “You can’t see the crowd when you’re on the court it’s so dark. But you obviously hear them. You know, it was a great atmosphere. It’s not as much, I guess, interaction with the crowd. But the atmosphere was excellent.”

I’m still not quite sure how unalloyed Murray’s appeal really is to the wider British tennis public. Maybe it’s simple: he’s a winner ‘” and a potential Wimbledon winner. He certainly looks like the most serious contender that the British have had for a Wimbledon men’s singles title and the world No. 1 ranking for longer than anyone but Bud Collins, the dean of American tennis commentators, can remember.

But Murray’s 2009 ranking slipped after a brief tick up to No. 2 in August, just before the U.S. Open, to No. 4 by the time the London finals began.(He’s presently No. 5.) He has yet to win one of the four majors or Grand Slam tournaments, and he has broken the hearts of the faithful a couple of times already at Wimbledon, just as the unlucky Tim Henman did during his six semifinal appearances, though it’s hard to imagine Murray not making it past the semifinals for four more years if his health holds, despite his three straight losses in Grand Slam finals. (Remember, Ivan Lendl lost four straight before turning things around against McEnroe in that famous French Open final in 1984.)

Murray’s still capable of prolonged funks and sulks and verbal tirades that even bad lip readers can find offensive, and his results continue to be spotty for a twenty-two year-old of such gifts, though we should remember that it was just about at this point, at Murray’s age, that Federer’s promising career lifted off into the stratosphere eight years ago.

Despite his success against Federer going into the London finals, Murray was also a telling 2-7 lifetime versus Nadal, even though six of those matches have been played on hard courts (Murray’s best surface to date, and the surface at The O2) and only two losses have come on Nadal’s beloved clay. Finally, against Novak “Nole” Djokovic, born just a week after Murray in 1987, Murray is 3-4, though he has won their last three encounters after losing the first four.

Going into the Del Potro match, Murray was 4-1 lifetime against the rising twenty-one year-old Argentinian, including three wins over him this year on hard courts. He lost their only meeting on clay in 2009 in Madrid. The surface in London was a hard court, but slower than expected, according to the players, although they also said it was playing faster as the week progressed. On that first Sunday it gave Murray plenty of time to get a look at the increasingly intimidating and effective Del Potro serve. To the delight of the hometown crowd, who cheered wildly throughout, Murray prevailed in the end, 6-2 in the third set. Del Potro, a notoriously slow starter, had pulled it together eventually and raised his level of play in the second set, but was unable to sustain it against Murray’s consistent pressure in the third. Del Potro hadn’t played much tennis since his life-altering U.S. Open win in early September, and it showed at critical moments against Murray. In addition to returning better and making many fewer unforced errors than his opponent, Murray actually served twice as many aces as Del Potro, 8-4, during the two hour and eleven minute match.

One of the revelations of the match for me (and one of the joys of watching tennis live as opposed to on television) was being able to see and hear the game in the full splendor of its three-dimensionality (say what you will about high-definition television, it still can’t rival the real thing, live and in person as they tend to say on TV, as though it were really true). When Del Potro flattens out a forehand or really snaps a first serve, it makes a sound that only Marin Cilic and Andy Roddick can rival. In fact, I found myself remembering the first time I went into the San Diego baseball stadium and heard the young Dwight Gooden of the Mets warming up in the bullpen before I ever saw him. His fastball hitting the catcher’s glove made a sound I’d never heard before. It was unforgettable.

The effect of the Murray win over Del Potro on that first afternoon was to heighten interest in the goings on at The O2 even further, in the newspapers and on television, and on the streets, in London, especially as people began talking about the impending Murray match against Federer. It was their first encounter since a match in Cincinnati, one of the main lead-up event to the U.S. Open , and Federer won decisively in straight sets, even though Murray had won their two earlier semifinal encounters in 2009, also on hard courts, in Doha and Miami.

The ATP marketing people pitched the London finals as “The Decider” and in the case of Federer and Murray, it provided at least the occasion for Federer to pull even with Murray in wins and losses for the year. Federer won 6-1 in the third set in a gripping match that had the fans on the edge of their seats, applauding and screaming encouragement both for Federer, their adopted favorite son and five-time Wimbledon champion, and the brash native son who has become their great recent hope. After the players split the first two sets, Murray faded mysteriously and badly in the third, as he tends to continue to do at unpredictable times in big matches. His normally impressive return of serve deserted him (he returned just 6 of 43 Federer first serves overall, only 13% compared to his 35% return rate on first serves for 2009). His own serve was broken five times, even though he served two more aces than the Swiss star. The five game margin in the final set score would return to haunt Murray when the semifinalists were decided on Friday by the difference between their total games won and games lost in the first three matches.

Rafael Nadal had a miserable week in London from start to finish, losing all three round robin matches, to the astonishment of all, though he had chances to turn the tide in every match. He lost final sets to both Davydenko and Djokovic, and to the surprise of those who may have expected a Jacobean revenge drama on the year-end stage in London, he lost in straight sets to Robin Soderling, the Swede who had ended Nadal’s thirty-one match win streak on the clay at Roland Garros in May. He must have groaned when he saw that Soderling had finished the year well enough to qualify for the London final as an alternate, and then be dropped by the draw into Nadal’s round robin group after Andy Roddick’s last-minute withdrawal. (Roddick did make an appearance courtside for at least one of the matches in London, and received a spontaneous standing ovation when he appeared on the in-house video system, emphasizing just how much affection he has earned with the British crowds after his heart-breaking 16-14 final set loss to Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final.)

After his recent encounters with Soderling, Nadal now understands perhaps better than anyone how his high bouncing topspin plays right into one of the 6’4″ Swede’s chief strengths ‘” his ability to crush high balls on both sides thanks to his enormous wing span. In his postmatch press conference Rafa didn’t make excuses for himself, though he did suggest that it was his mental attitude rather than Soderling’s game that was the real problem: “I played okay. But in the important moments, I didn’t have this necessary calm, no?” He also dismissed, in his wonderfully disjointed but charming English, the idea that the Soderling rematch was a grudge match after what happened in Paris, “No, no. I said 100 times, I don’t believe on revenges, nothing of this. Every match is a different match. I went on court, try my best what I did all my life. I didn’t thought, no one second, on the Roland Garros match. Is completely different conditions. The moment is completely different, too.”

In an earlier interview, Rafa had mentioned that he had taken one of the Thames Clipper shuttles to The O2 from the players’ hotel in central London for a practice session wearing only his warm-ups and was so cold by the time he reached the court that it took half an hour just to warm up. The chill never wore off. After losing each match, he was philosophical about it all, looking back on the injury-plagued season of 2009 and also looking ahead to 2010 ‘” and more immediately looking forward eagerly to the clearly much more important (to him) defense of the Davis Cup in the final with the Czech Republic the weekend after the London finals, which Spain won convincingly, to the delight of the home fans, with Nadal winning both his singles matches, making Spain the first country to defend the Cup since Sweden in 1998. Nadal will clearly be ready to go again in January in Melbourne after finishing the year on such a high note, despite what happened in The O2 the week before.

Many who follow the tour thought the players to beat in London would be, if not Federer, Nadal, or Murray (none of whom had been on fire at year’s end), then Juan Martin Del Potro or Novak Djokovic. Del Potro had gone back to Argentina following his win in New York to a hero’s welcome and had not played with the same consistency or determination afterward in either Asia or in Europe, though he was the one who sent Marat Safin into retirement from the Palais Omnisport at Bercy in Paris.

By contrast, Djokovic had blazed through the 2009 regular season finish line with impressive wins in Paris (over Monfils), Basel (over Federer, after the loss to him at the U.S. Open), and Beijing (over Cilic) as well as strong showings at every other tournament he played, particularly the new 1000 level tour stop in Shanghai that the city was given in recompense for losing the year-end finals (he lost to Davydenko there in the semis in a very close, beautifully-played three-setter that ended with a dramatic tie-break, and the loser greeted the elated Kolya at the net with a big smile a shrug of the shoulders and what seemed to be a genuinely heartfelt embrace afterward).

Six weeks later, after his strenuous opening round robin win over Davydenko in London, Nole suddenly seemed the most fatigued of all the eight players (in fact he did have the most wins of them all for the year, with 78 against 19 losses), despite the attempt to boost his performance with a pair of new signature high-gloss fire-engine red Adidas CC Genius shoes in his second and third round robin matches (he had unveiled a pair of flashy gold shoes in Shanghai two years ago during his first appearance in the year-end championships, and has subsequently shown maybe the strongest affinity for blue shoes since Elvis). He has also matured impressively as both a player and, it seems, as a person over the past two years. No longer the strident young-gun and chest thumper that he was in his first years on the tour (though he remains as intense as anyone on court), he gets my vote for the sportsmanship award for this year. He has become as gracious in victory as he has always been in defeat. He even honored, to the delight of the whistling fans (was this really a British crowd?), Davydenko’s request to swap shirts, soccer-style, at the net following their long, tough round robin match.

To everyone’s surprise but the players, it was Davydenko who ended up coming through to win the tournament. As Nadal had said following his round robin loss to Davydenko, “Everyone has his chances here, no? The best eight players of the world,so anything can happen. Everybody has chances” And Kolya made the most of them, after characteristically lowering expectations by dropping his first round robin match to Djokovic 5-7 in the third set in a two-hour and forty-seven minute (and 200 total point!) marathon. Nole said afterward that he’d felt tired even before the match began, and he knew that it was “going to be a long one. Davydenko is in great form, and is very aggressive player.”

The final point is the notable one. Many casual observers seem to think of Davydenko as an anachronistic slightly built counterpuncher (he is 5’10” and maybe 154 lbs dripping wet, as he’s officially listed on his ATP Web site profile). Indeed, his game might even have been characterized in the past, in the wonderful phrase of Martin Amis, quoted by the late David Foster Wallace in describing his own low-risk style as a college player, as one of “craven retrieval.” But if that term ever described Davydenko’s worst tendencies, that was the old Kolya, not the one who started tearing up the circuit this fall as the tour landed in Kuala Lumpur at the start of the Asian swing. Davydenko beat Fernando Verdasco, the last of the eight players to qualify for London, in the final of the Malaysian Open in straight sets after defeating Robin Soderling in the semis (the same opponent against whom he had been forced to retire twice earlier in the year, including in the U.S. Open round of 16). He then lost to a red hot Marin Cilic the next week in Beijing in the quarters, but proceeded to win the final in the biggest event of the Asian swing in Shanghai in straight sets over Nadal, with wins over Fernando Gonzales, Radek Stepanek, and Djokovic on the way to the final.

By a series of lucky coincidences, since I don’t literally follow the tour around the planet all year, I happened to see the entire Shanghai 1000 tournament in October 2009, including the qualifying rounds. I’d decided to go to check out the young, up and coming Chinese male players (a long story for another time), and on a perfect autumn afternoon just before the main tournament began, I found myself at a qualifying match out on Court 4 as Kolya and his wife Irina slipped quietly onto Court 5 just behind us. Their arrival didn’t turn many heads, much less draw a crowd from among the hundred or so people watching a Thai journeyman play a new kid from Slovenia on Court 4.

But when I turned around at the sound of laughter, the Davydenkos were beaming at one another and giggling like newlyweds (they were married in 2006), teasing and skipping around the court in what turned out to be the few minutes before the day’s practice-match partner appeared – world No. 11 Giles Simon of France, sporting an incongruous red Nebraska Football t-shirt that must have been won from die-hard Cornhusker fan Andy Roddick. And I thought to myself, watching the Davydenkos for those few minutes, how lovely for them to be feeling like this after what they’ve been through during the past couple of years. (I even quietly snapped a few quick photos of them as a souvenir of the moment.)

In case you missed hearing about it, Davydenko ‘” the Davydenkos plural, actually — were at the center of a gambling and match-fixing investigation that erupted after Nikolay retired unexpectedly from a match during a tournament in Poland in August of 2007 not long before the start of the U.S. Open. He and Irina — and his older brother and coach Eduard — were cleared after an agonizing investigation of more than fourteen months'”and what must have been countless sleepless nights. To make a long ordeal short, he was trailing slightly in a second round match against No. 87 ranked Argentine Martin Vasallo Arguello 6-2, 3-6, 1-2 when he suddenly retired in the third set. The problem emerged when Betfair, based in London, the world’s largest Internet wagering company, had noticed that more than $7 million had been placed on the match, more than ten times the usual amount for a relatively unimportant match at a little known tourney. Even more suspiciously, still more money poured in on Arguello after the first set, which Davydenko had actually won. The pattern rang some alarm bells in the fraud division, and for the first time in its history, Betfair voided all wagers, and the ATP commenced a full investigation, fearing the reputation of the game might be at stake.

Davydenko had been struggling with a foot injury that turned out to be a stress fracture, an injury that had been a big part of the reason he lost several matches over the previous year. But like most players in similar circumstances he had tried to keep the extent of the injury quiet, not wanting to give potential opponents any more incentive to add to the miles he already runs routinely on the court compared to many of his less competitive and fit peers. His immediate circle knew, of course, and that led to Irina and Eduard becoming persons of interest in the investigation.

Adding smoke to the hazy background in which the match was soon seen was Davydenko’s ongoing history of retiring from matches with injuries. As noted earlier, he had been forced to retire due to injury seven times during the previous four years. (In 2009, he forfeited two matches by walk-overs because of injuries and had to retire during a third, at the U.S Open.) Inside knowledge of a serious injury to him might have been taken more seriously than if it were known about another player. Moreover, like Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a fine Russian player of a decade earlier who was regarded as something of a mercenary even by pro tennis standards because of the number of tournaments he played each year all over the globe, Davydenko also had a reputation for playing more events than many of the top ten players, suggesting perhaps that the money mattered more to him than to others on the tour.

So who knew what when, and who told what to whom thereafter became the distressing burden the Davydenkos had to endure for most of the next year plus. In September 2008, the ATP reported that it had “exhausted all avenues of inquiry” and found “no violation of the rules by either Mr Arguello or Mr Davydenko or anyone else associated with the match in question.”

Yet even after they had been found not guilty of any wrongdoing or match-fixing, a haze of suspicion still lingered over the Davydenkos for a while (the ATP noted, unhelpfully, that it never did get all the telephone records it wanted because of the telecommunications carriers’ policies for destroying calling data in accordance with local data protection laws). At the 2008 U.S. Open, just before the exoneration announcement, while losing to Gilles Muller in the fourth round, Kolya broke all four of his racquets, after breaking only one during the entire previous year. Obviously, the strain had taken a toll.

And the suspicion has never gone away completely. Saying there was “no evidence of violation of the rules” is hardly the same thing as a verdict of innocent. There’s a passage on the scandal and its unanswered questions in Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius in a section in which he also points out that tennis may now be the third largest betting sport worldwide after horseracing and soccer.

On that sunny afternoon in Shanghai, however, the clouds seemed to have lifted entirely, at least for the two of them. Davydenko won the practice match with Simon, judging by the French player’s recurrent groans and sighs. I kept turning around to see if he was all right. The distress Nikolay’s game was giving him turned out to be a sign of things to come for other players, too, that week.

During the final against a Nadal just regaining his top form in his second tournament back on tour since the U.S. Open, Davydenko was the more aggressive player from start to finish, not only returning well and defending the court with his usual range and tenacity, but hitting the ball consistently hard and deep, and also taking advantage of every short heavily top-spun Nadal forehand to drive the ball into the corners and up the lines'”and, even more surprisingly, coming in to the net whenever there was an opportunity. In a close match in which the two sets lasted more than two hours, Davydenko prevailed on what seemed like all the critical points, just as he had in the semifinal against Djokovic on the very court where he had lost the year-end finals the previous November.

Despite these successes throughout October, Davydenko was flying under the radar again by the time he qualified for the London event and arrived to find his photo had not made the big banner greeting everyone over the entrance to The O2 . He had lost to Safin in Moscow the week after the Shanghai final, then lost to countryman Mikhael Youzny in Valencia in the semifinals, and to Robin Soderling for the third time in 2009 (against what would eventually be two wins for the year) in the quarterfinals of the Paris Indoor. When he lost to Djokovic in his first round robin match in London, whatever expectations there may have been for him as a potential spoiler went out the window for most people yet again.

As my father, a former basketball and football coach, is fond of saying, the most important six inches on any field or court is the six inches between a player’s ears. And Kolya showed in London just what a determined, focused, imaginative and courageous player he can be by completing his defeat of all the top ten players for 2009. Federer had been the only remaining player he had not beaten. And their semifinal match was immediately recognized by the ATP on its Web site as one of the top five matches of the year. The final against Del Potro was also a fine match, but the Federer match was the one that featured a myth-busting, decisive Kolya comeback.

Federer had clinched the year’s number one ranking with his second round robin win, and he won seven of the first eight points against Davydenko, looking as though he might finish the whole year in style, with a flourish. But rather than wilting or giving up and simply going away, Davydenko found a way to concentrate harder, begin moving better, and strike the ball more cleanly and with more depth. Suddenly he was leading 4-1. Federer was the one who seemed to be scrambling to stay in the points. One of the main reasons was that Davydenko’s return of serve had never been better against Federer. Even though the Swiss number one connected on 82% of his first serves (and Davydenko won only 18% of those) he won 59% of the points on Federer’s second serve and broke him an astonishing three times in the first set alone. Craven retrievers don’t break Federer three times in a single set.

Serving first in the second set, Federer raised the level of his game impressively, losing only five points on his own service, and when he finally had a break point on Davydenko’s serve in the tenth game, he pressured the Russian immediately by coming in on a second serve return, winning both the point and with it the second set 6-4. It was clear he was not simply going to pack up the hardware he’d already won (crystal, actually) and go home for the winter break.

The third set was as close as the second had been (the total points for the match favored Davydenko only 86-81) , and the points were ending quickly, with winners from both sides. Again in the tenth game, fortune seemed to favor Federer as it had in the second set, when he reached love-30 on Davydenko’s serve (thanks partly to a lucky net cord dropping over on the game’s first point). But Davydenko came back to win the game, and in the next broke Federer’s serve for the fourth and most important time with a backhand winner.

Like Bjorn Borg, another former youth hockey-player whose game Davydenko’s resembles in a number of important and largely unnoticed ways, he has an extremely deceptive two-handed backhand that can power the ball up the line utilizing the extra strength that the second hand on the upper part of the grip gives him to change the direction of the shot. Or he can roll it sharply cross-court with a quick flick of his left wrist as he comes up through the hitting zone. Consequently, the 2010 injury to Davydenko’s non-dominant wrist, his left wrist, has been of much greater importance than it would might have seemed to a player with a different backhand.

In the London semi against Federer, Davydenko won points with equal facility going either direction against his determined opponent all day long. In the final game, Federer reached one last break point, but this time it was a forehand winner that saved Kolya and allowed him to hold for the game, set, and match. Afterward he said, “I think all my family, everybody who supports me, was waiting for this moment when I can beat Federer, because I have beaten everyone in the Top 10 except him.”

The next day, after the final, Juan Martin Del Potro responded to a suggestion that he had lost the match rather than Davydenko winning it, by insisting that he not only “beat me” but is “a great champion.” He continued, “he’s very strong. I never beat him in hard court or indoors. He’s very fast. He play like Play Station, you know. Run to everywhere. Is very difficult to make winners. But I think he is a great champion. Nobody knows how can we beat him.” If players as talented as Del Potro are still trying to understand and write the book on how to play Davydenko, maybe it’s time for the rest of the world to muster up some long overdue respect and affection for the guy. For all the great stories that made their way into the end of the season matches in The O2 this year, it was Kolya who provided the longest, deepest breath of fresh air.

An Auspicious Beginning to 2010

When the ATP tour resumed in January of 2010 after the December holiday break, Davyenkdo remained at the top of his game. In the year’s first tournament in Doha, Qatar he again defeated Roger Federer 64 64 in the semifinals and Rafael Nadal in three sets in the final 06 76(8) 64. He lost a close quarterfinal match to Federer at the Australian Open, and then disaster struck in February when he injured his right wrist in a match against Michael Berrer of Germany. It turned out to be a fracture, and he missed three months before coming back in Halle, only to see his ranking slide during the rest of the year to a season low of 22, his first year outside the top ten since 2004.

He has not won a title since that injury, though he continues working hard on the comeback trail.