If today in Doha is any indication, you can forget that Rafael Nadal is on sick leave and focus on a Big Four consisting of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and … Nikolay Davydenko.
Alright, so Davydenko is ranked a modest No. 44. He’s 31, and has won just two titles in the last three years. Last year, he never even made a final. But if you saw the way he demolished world No. 5 David Ferrer in the semifinals, 6-2, 6-3, you might be more inclined to pencil him in over the Spaniard as next in line for that No. 4 ranking that Nadal is about to surrender.
Davydenko routed one of the most combative, gritty, and consistent players of the past decade in a match that barely lasted an hour (officially, it was 1:04). Ferrer didn’t see a single break point, and he made 26 unforced errors to Davydenko’s 17. He also hit just six winners compared to the Russian’s 18.
The word we’re looking for is one very rarely associated with anything Ferrer: “Blowout!”
The most notable feature of the match was Davydenko’s ability to take care of his serve. It’s been a theme for him all week in Doha. It may be hard to believe, but the 5’10” veteran hasn’t dropped serve yet, and the book on him has always been that you can get into his service games and undermine his confidence.
But truth be told, both of these baseliners turned the conventional wisdom on its ear today, relying on their serves as if they were natural-born attackers rather than defenders. Davydenko scored the first break with a one-two combination of a pretty backhand down-the-line winner followed by a tricky backhand that pulled Ferrer up to the net; it forced a volley error. That led to a 3-1 Davydenko lead, which threatened to become a two-break edge when Ferrer next served and fell behind 0-40. But Ferrer hit his way out of trouble, delivering three consecutive service winners to hold for 2-3.
Davydenko followed with an impressive serving display of his own to hold quickly, and Ferrer wandered into danger again in the next game. Once again, he fell behind 0-40 as Davydenko unloaded a dazzling array of relatively flat and lethally angled groundstrokes to keep Ferrer on the run. Ferrer gamely fought off the first two break points but succumbed to the third following a nifty combination of groundies that brought Davydenko up to the net to claim the break with a volley winner. He then held with ease to take the first set in 28 minutes.
You could be forgiven for groaning at that point and thinking, “We’re in for a long one…” But Ferrer, now in panic mode, began a campaign to break Davydenko’s momentum by playing a lot of slice. That didn’t work out so well—he had to save two break points just to survive the first game of the next set. The next five games rolled by quickly; the way Davydenko was clubbing the ball, it was clear we weren’t going to be watching a lot of long rallies. That, by the way, offers a clue to the question, “How do you beat Ferrer?”
Davydenko made his final, critical breakthrough in the seventh game, once again rolling to a 0-40 lead on Ferrer’s serve. He didn’t allow Ferrer to sneak back into this one, though, slamming the door with a Nole-worthy inside-out forehand winner. Did Davydenko, ordinarily a shy and self-effacing type, really puff out chest and glare at the spot where the ball landed with that “Who’s the man?” glint in his eyes?
All Davydenko had to do then was keep his nerve. He accomplished that with ease as a dispirited Ferrer allowed yet another hold, then fell behind 30-40 on serve. Davydenko converted the match point when he ended a rally with yet another, final, backhand winner.
I’ve always like Davydenko’s game better than that of Ferrer, and this match demonstrated why. When you can take the ball early, hit relatively flat, scamper around the court nimbly and pick your angles, even a grinder extraordinaire like Ferrer can be rendered powerless.
Now let’s see you do it again, Kolya.