Nikolay Davydenko: no more whip-cracking tennis from retiring Russian

Nikolay Davydenko announces his retirement from playing tennis at a press conference at the Kremlin

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

Nikolay Davydenko, champion at the first playing of the ATP World Tour Finals in London in 2009, threw away a small yet prescient comment when picking up his first trophy in almost three years, the doubles title in Montpellier this spring. He would return next year “if I am still around, and able to.”

Today, at the tournament he won three times in his home city of Moscow, Davydenko announced his retirement after 15 years on the tour.

The Russian news agency Tass quoted him as saying: “I am 33 years old. I won 21 tournaments, including three Masters 1000 tournaments, and the World Tour Finals. I have no regrets that throughout my career I did not take a single trophy of the Grand Slam series or was never the world’s top player.

“Unfortunately, I sustained numerous injuries in recent years and they are still troubling me. It is difficult for me to say this, and I have been thinking when to announce it. The time has come. I have my whole life to live. I officially announce my retirement from professional tennis.”

The writing had perhaps been on the wall at the end of 2013, when the Russian ended the year outside the top 50 for the first time since 2002 after pulling out of Beijing with the wrist injury that had plagued him for several years.

After Montpellier this year, he played just a dozen more singles matches, and won only four of them, before bowing out of Roland Garros in the first round.

Whether this slight, wiry and unassuming man was being entirely honest in professing no regrets at those unspoken benchmarks of tennis greatness, we may never know. And he did reach No3 in the world, as well as four Grand Slam semi-finals.

Yet arguably, he was one of the best of his generation to fail on both counts. For when Davydenko—dubbed ‘the iron man’ with good reason, famed as he was for his work-rate—played at his best, he had the measure of the best.

Few players active during the peak of contemporary Roger Federer and during Rafael Nadal’s dominance on clay can boast three Masters titles.

Few can claim back-to-back finals at the Masters Cup, later the World Tour Finals, though Davydenko did just that in Shanghai in 2008 and London in 2009.

In winning the latter, he also achieved what very few others have: wins over both Federer and Nadal in a single tournament. What’s more, Davydenko did it twice. Barely a month after the O2, he beat Federer in the semis and Nadal in the final to win the 2010 Doha title.

That would become the foundation for perhaps his greatest claim to fame: He would beat Nadal in Doha the next year too, his fourth consecutive victory, and he retires still with a winning head-to-head of 6-5 against Nadal.

At the peak of his powers—and 2008 to the start of 2010 was arguably his peak, with 22 victories over top-10 opponents—the glittering tennis that proved so devastating to such illustrious opposition briefly gave Davydenko the kind of limelight he had always lacked. After winning the World Tour Finals, he admitted that he went about London entirely unrecognised. But he won many hearts with his dry humour and modesty that night in the O2:

“Everybody knows [Federer]. But, maybe now, after London, I also have a little bit, just a small part of famous here in London. I would like.”

However by the end of 2010, hampered by the wrist injury picked up in Rotterdam, he dropped from the top 10 for the first time in over five years, and got beyond his second match only four more times that season.

The hot-and-cold results continued in 2011. He opened with another Doha final—this time losing to Federer—then five first-round losses before winning the last of his 21 career titles in Munich. He had seven more opening losses to drop to 41 by the year-end.

And yet, there were still the occasional flashes of brilliance, of tennis so sharp and thrilling that tennis fans suddenly sat up and took notice again.

Such an occasion was back in Rotterdam in 2012.

Davydenko’s star had dulled since that heady night in London, and few noticed the slender, fair figure practising in the dark recesses of the Ahoy Centre’s Court 3, watched by an entourage comprising only his wife. Yet his clean, crisp and angled ball-striking was gripping, his speed to the net as impressive as ever.

It was not long before his surgical tactics and execution captured the Centre Court, too. He entered ‘the zone’ against Richard Gasquet, attacked everything that came at him, and fanned his angled groundstrokes to devastating effect.

Here was a throwback to the Davydenko who out-played Federer in the semis of the WTFs more than two years before—and he almost did the same in the semis here. The Russian went a set up, then up a break in the second set, then up 40-0 on Federer’s serve at 4-3 in the third… but Davydenko lost.

During the remainder of 2012, he withdrew from tournaments five times, and lost from a winning position—at the US Open from two sets up, the Olympics from a set up, and the same in Miami and Nice—time and again.

Doha worked its magic one last time in 2013, where the Russian made a run to the final, but his had become a story of one step forward, two steps back. He admitted to considering retirement at his last tournament appearance at this year’s French Open, but chose his home to do the deed.

Davydenko intends to build a new career in business and finance, and so there is no guarantee we shall ever again see him near a tennis court, either coaching or playing the seniors tour.

Perhaps the closest that fans of his exhilarating, zipping, cracking ball-striking will come to the something similar is from the racket of the equally compact, concise, speedy tennis of Kei Nishikori—another quietly spoken, unassuming character, though one who will have to live his tennis life in the spotlight of Asian fame.

But Nikolay, your tennis will be sorely missed.

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