Nikolay Davydenko explodes into Roger Federer clash in Rotterdam
Nikolay Davydenko is preparing to take on world No3 Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Rotterdam Open
The big-hitting men in the bottom half of Rotterdam’s draw were the first to fulfil their seedings—and in the most impressive of styles.
Tomas Berdych took just 67 minutes to end any hope of a second career title for Andreas Seppi: 6-3, 6-4. He was immediately followed by a Juan Martin del Potro clearly eager to save energy for a doubles quarter-final that was scheduled back-to-back with his singles. His was a brutal dismissal of Viktor Troicki in 61 minutes, in a match that gave the Serb just one game and not a single break point.
Del Potro failed in his doubles mission, though only just—10-8 in a super-tie-break third set—and will take on the world No7 in Rotterdam’s first semi-final.
The evening was the province of the some of the artists of the game. First came the ultra-relaxed Roger Federer against long-standing friend and fellow 30-year-old, Jarkko Nieminen—a man who, he was quick to tell the crowd, was always a challenge to play and a good guy to boot.
Friends they may be, but Federer had allowed him not one win in 12 matches. He also sounded frighteningly confident after his first-round match.
“In a way, it’s a perfect schedule [having a day off] but for it to be perfect I need to win the next match, and then I really think I could play some amazing tennis in the semis.”
The comment held a reference to his need for some more match-play on Rotterdam’s Centre Court. After his frisky but short display in a ‘super-tie-break’ exho—and an evening of Haydn and Beethoven in the city to celebrate his mother’s birthday—could he hit the ground running after just one match and no practice sessions in the main arena?
The answer, initially, appeared to be no: Federer struggled to find his rhythm, range and timing. Nieminen opened serve, kept the pace high, and forced numerous errors from the usually devastating Federer forehand.
Finally at 5-5, Federer did find a couple of big returns of serve to earn three break points, and converted the third. He served out the set, 7-5. He afterwards confirmed that he was glad of the time to adjust to this Rotterdam surface.
“I definitely struggled a little bit at times on timing, to know exactly with how much pace does the ball go through the court, especially in defence, but that’s why I think it was a good thing maybe to play a tough match like this. But on my service games I hardly made any stupid mistakes to be quite honest, and that was most important.”
In the second set, the quality of Federer’s serve more than compensated for the odd shanks and overhit forehands. He dropped not a point on serve until the eighth game and only two on his first serve—four altogether—in the set.
He twice earned the chance to break at 3-3 and again at 4-4, but in the end it needed a tie-break for Federer to find his best—and he did, picking off volley and forehand winners to storm to a 7-2 scoreline.
In each of their last two indoor meetings, both of them in Basel, Federer and Nieminen played for 95 minutes and the Finn had five chances to break. This match was of similar length, but Federer offered his friend not a single break point in the match. And he certainly finished better than he started, so perhaps he really is now ready to play that promised “amazing tennis”.
The majority in the Rotterdam crowd perhaps anticipated that Federer’s next opponent would be the oft-dubbed “baby Federer”, No5 seed Richard Gasquet.
The Frenchman knocked out Alex Bogomolov Jr in a sparkling 6-3, 6-2, hour-and-a-quarter match that saw his whip of a single-handed backhand firing winners at will. And although Gasquet was pitted against former world No3 Nikolay Davydenko, the slight Russian had won only two titles since taking a career-crowning World Tour Finals trophy in November 2009.
The under-the-radar man from Moscow has continued to search for his old form in 2012. With just two wins out of five matches this year, he has dropped outside the top 50 for the first time since 2004 and now he faced, in Gasquet, the last man to beat him a fortnight ago in Montpellier.
However, anyone who happened to spot Davydenko in practice on Court 3 this week—and very few did—would have been struck by the muscularity and speed of his hitting, the crisp flatness of his ground strokes and an underestimated ability to finish off neatly at the net.
This may be his ninth appearance in Rotterdam and he may have reached the semis three times before, but with an entourage comprising only his wife and their bump, he still managed, after 13 years as a pro and 21 titles, to be overlooked.
When he was broken in his very first service game of the match, the crowd’s prediction looked justified. He broke back straight away, but Gasquet broke again in sixth to take a 4-2 lead and most bets were off.
But while Davydenko has often been prone to purple patches cancelled out by nightmare patches, Gasquet can suffer the same demons. Daveydenko levelled, broke again and took the set, 7-5.
The small angular Russian, buoyed up by his comeback, found what can only be described as ‘the zone.’ He stepped into the baseline, attacked everything that came at him—and Gasquet was not playing poorly—and began to fan his angled groundstrokes to devastating effect. He broke Gasquet in the seventh game, held with some huge serving—especially for a man of 5ft 10in—and finished off the job, to gasps from the crowd, with some bullet-like winners.
This felt like a throwback to the Davydenko who fired past Federer in the semis of the WTFs more than two years ago, and he sounded like the same man, too.
“I’m just filled with confidence. Tomorrow, I can’t wait—I don’t know what to expect—but thanks for staying and supporting the last match.”
They didn’t just stay, they cheered his tennis as though it was a new and exciting sport. Those who have followed the quiet but witty man from Russia through the course of his career know this is the Davydenko of old. And in this mood, he could test Federer just as he did back in London, back in 2009.
Check out more action photos from Federer, Baghdatis, Del Potro, Gasquet and more.