(1) Federer d. Davydenko, 4/6 6/3 6/4
The last time Nikolay Davydenko took a set from Roger Federer was in the quarterfinal of the 2010 Australian Open, a notorious match that remains almost unique in the history of men’s tennis. Like the exquisitely preserved clay pot whose hitherto un-guessed-at technical perfection demands we reassess an entire civilisation, this match’s archaeological value is incalculable. For the first time, we are able to pinpoint the precise moment at which a fine career collapsed, even if we cannot say why.
The decline of a great player is more usually a vague, circuitous and debated procedure, defined by false trails, sudden collapses, sunsets mistaken for dawns, whispered speculation, soul-abrading media scrutiny and strident assertions of business-as-usual. Admittedly, Davydenko’s plummet has included all of those, but really, the consensus is that it began as the Russian led Federer 6/2 3/1, and riding a two-match streak against the sport’s greatest player. From there he lost 13 straight games, the match, and his will to compete. But if we can isolate the moment, we still cannot explain it. Until 3/1 in the second set, Davydenko was arguably the most in-form player in the world, and the purest ball-striker in the sport. Suddenly, he wasn’t.
This week in Rotterdam Davydenko has, for the first glorious time in two long years, looked like his old self. His assured victory over Richard Gasquet, who played well and is justified in having designs on the top ten, was particularly impressive. Davydenko’s momentum, eerily, lasted until he again lead Federer by a set and 3/1. Federer had been outplayed until that point, but lifted to take the following five games, and the set. (Davydenko cunningly threw in an ill-conceived medical timeout in order to stall his own momentum). This was Davydenko’s cue to fade. It is to his credit that he reapplied himself in the third.
The tennis was superb and desperate, owing to a pair of committed shot-makers on a delightfully-paced indoor court, and to a delirious Dutch crowd. Davydenko’s hands and Federer’s feet were the standouts, as the Russian annexed the baseline and redirected the world No.3 to the corners. Federer’s desperation was admirable, his effort unstinting, and his brilliance undimmed. He grabbed at a handful of breakpoints, but Davydenko grasped each firmly, wrenching them back. Then, at 3/4, Davydenko moved to 0-40 on Federer’s serve. He only had a look-in on one of the three, and looked at a clean pass up the line. His backhand found the net. It proved decisive. Federer served his way to the hold, then broke Davydenko to love, a run of nine straight points. Was this the new Davydenko asserting himself once more? Let’s not forget that before beating Federer twice, he had lost to him twelve times in a row. The old Davydenko generally fared no better.
If the 2010 Australian Open clearly precipitated Davydenko’s fall, is it too much to hope that 2012 Rotterdam signals some kind of resurgence? Most narratives are of course false, and the best of them achieve perfection via a hermetic circularity such as this. Real life is much richer, and its comings and goings harder to discern until later, when they are subsumed into the narrative we call the past. In LA Story, the great philosopher Steve Martin, curiously echoing Sartre, wondered, ‘Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends?’ Davydenko, now thirty, is probably made of the wrong stuff to commence an Agassi-like second career, for all that the two broadly share a game-style and a hairstyle. However, if Davydenko was somehow to return to the top twenty, or even the top ten, we might one day come to believe that a fine week in Holland was where it began, again.