October 7, 2009

Quietly Plodding Away

It's easy to have missed Nikolay Davydenko this year. Plagued by a heel injury early in 2009, he was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open -- the first Gran Slam he'd missed in over eight years -- and was unable to defend his title in Miami. He fell out of the top ten for three months during the spring and summer and suffered a first round loss in Rome, as well as defeats at the hands of James Blake, Same Querrey and Fabio Fognini.

But very quietly he has already added three new trophies to his mantle, and this week in Beijing he's attempting to win back-to-back titles for the second time this year. After winning in Hamburg and Umag back in July, he beat three top-fifteen players in a row last week in Kuala Lumpur. So far in China he's squeaked past Igor Kunitsyn after dropping a tight second set and trounced Philipp Kohlschreiber in straights in the second round, taking less than an hour to advance.

A win in Beijing would make 2009 Davydenko's most prolific year since 2006, when he also achieved a career-high ranking at #3, but there's still a lot of work to be done. The China Open marks Rafael Nadal's return to competition after a nagging stomach strain made New York a taxing effort and second-seeded Novak Djokovic has also been playing in top form.

More immediately, though, he'll face eighth seed Marin Cilic, a player he hold a 2-0 record over. Then again, they haven't met in two years, when the twenty-one year old Croat was ranked seventy-first in the world -- now he's fifteen -- and he's notched a big win already this year against Andy Murray. Though Cilic has remained quiet for most of the year, he does have two smallish titles under his belt -- Chennai and Zagreb. He's not exactly a foe to take lightly.

Incidentally, the match I'm most looking forward to is tomorrow's second round face-off between James Blake and Nadal. We all know the tough time Blake's been having this year, with two opening round losses in back-to-back Majors, but he is one of the few players with a winning 3-2 record over Rafa. If the reigning #2 is even a bit off his game, this could be an opportunity for Blake to get back on track.

The draw might be smaller than other tournaments, but there are certainly enough big names in the mix for some to make a splash at the China Open. And for those that have been quietly making their way through the tournaments this year, there could be a nice payoff at the end.

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