November 29, 2009

Second Time's the Charm

It took quite an effort for Nikolay Davydenko to claim the biggest title of his career. The twenty-eight year old Russian had to beat not one, but three Grand Slam titleholders plus another runner-up in order to win the ATP World Tour Finals in London this week. But he certainly brought the goods when he needed it most.

Davydenko didn't qualify for the year-end championships until just two weeks ago at the Paris Masters where, ironically, it wasn't his stellar performance, but the mediocre showings from some other contenders that sealed the deal. In France he lost in the third round to Roland Garros finalist Robin Soderling -- a man he met again during the last of his round robin matches in London. Had Nikolay repeated the defeat his ride would have ended, but instead the two-hour, three-set rematch on Friday ended in victory and he made the semifinals for the third time.

Davydenko had already defeated a struggling Rafael Nadal in his first match of the week, and his win over Soderling must have given him that extra confidence he needed. In Saturday's semis he hung tough against Grand Slam record-holder Roger Federer, a man he'd never beaten in twelve previous tries, and after another long match made the finals for the second year in a row -- this time to face reigning U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro.

I have to admit I was giving DelPo the advantage on Sunday -- he'd beaten Roger again during his round robins and was impressive against a strong Soderling in the prior round. He's also been the golden child of the last half of 2009, making the finals in Montreal and taking the title in Washington before his coup in New York.

Davydenko, himself, has had a great fall. He won two titles in Asia, notching wins over Novak Djokovic and Nadal in Shanghai. But he's never had the best luck at major tournaments -- he's made the final four at the French and U.S. Opens a couple times, but never been able to convert. Last year in the finals against Djokovic, he was routed in the first set and in about a hundred minutes lost the match handily.

Today, however, Nikolay was in rare form. A man never comfortable at the net, he volleyed one shot after another past the six-foot-six Argentine, and seemed to get to everything that was tossed his way. He saved both break chances Del Potro had in the second set, never allowing him into the match, and closed out the championship with a 6-3, 6-4 win.

It was clearly a great moment for Davydenko, but the state of play in London this week may highlight further the shifting state of men's tennis. With only the best players qualifying for London, no match should be considered a walk in the park. Even still, take a look at a few of the results -- Nadal went 0-3 in the round robins! Federer lost for a second straight time to DelPo, and for the first ever time to Nikolay. Djokovic didn't get a chance to repeat his victory of last year and Andy Murray, well, I don't think many gave the hometown-hero too much of a shot here.

With just over a month before the sport's best players head Down Under, the stage has already been set for what could be a very interesting year.

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