By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
If someone asked me at what point did Nikolay Davydenko’s career take a (as of now) permanent turn for the worse, I would have an answer ready. I think that there was a clear time, a clear match, a clear set, in which Davydenko reached a peak. There is one singular moment that we can point to as the end of Davydenko’s time as a top player. Since that turning point in that single match, Davydenko has just not been the same player.
It was three years ago, in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Davydenko was playing the best tennis of his life. He had won his first (and only) Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai in late 2009 and followed that up with a victory at the World Tour Finals in the O2 in London. He won Doha to start 2010, beating Federer and Nadal back-to-back in the process.
And then came the Australian Open. Davydenko was in the greatest form of his career. And, while he had reached Grand Slam quarterfinals and semifinals in the past, this really looked like his best chance to ever win a Slam. He had just shown the ability to beat the only two guys on tour who were winning Slams at that time, and very few players were able to hang with him in matches. Fernando Gonzalez had taken him to the wire in the fourth round by playing great tennis, but Davydenko was even too much for him. His baseline tennis and shotmaking from deep in the court were just unmatchable.
And then came his quarterfinal match against Roger Federer. Federer had won their first 12 matches, but Davydenko was riding a 2-match winning streak against the Swiss star. And Davydenko looked to be just as incredible in this match as he had been for the previous 4 months. He roared out of the gate, breaking Federer twice in the first set. He was just unplayable. Federer wasn’t able to control rallies and couldn’t hit winners by him. Davydenko, on the other hand was able to hit incredible winners and was just beating Federer in almost every facet of the game. Davydenko continued this dominance and broke Federer twice to start the second set, taking a 3-0 lead.
It was at this point that Davydenko fell apart. He tensed up and dropped his level a bit. And then it was over. Federer won the next ten games, taking the second and third sets and never looking back. Since that match, Davydenko just hasn’t been the same. He has won just one tournament since then, a 250 in Munich against a pretty weak field in 2011. He hadn’t reached a final until Doha a few weeks. His Shanghai and World Tour Finals points kept him in the top 10 until the end of 2010, but after that he fell out and his ranking has been falling ever since. He hasn’t even reached the fourth round of a Slam in the last three years. Wins over top players and semifinals at anything other than the smallest of tournaments have become all but nonexistent.
And now, 3 years later, Davydenko has a chance to rectify what went wrong. He showed a form two weeks ago that was similar to his 2010 level. He knows that tightening up against Federer 3 years ago cost him what definitely could have been his only Slam victory. Davydenko has not beaten Federer in their 4 meetings since 2010, but he really still has the power and the precision to trouble Federer. The only issue is playing with enough intensity but relaxed enough to actually do it. Davydenko is 31 now and doesn’t have so much time left with the physical ability to compete at the highest level. If he wants to make amends for the biggest missed opportunity of his career—a missed opportunity that has brought his entire career down with it—this very well may be his last chance.