I have really missed Nikolay Davydenko.
Davydenko, or Kolya as he is known by fans and friends, has always been one of the most underrated players and personalities on tour. He's a quiet and quirky workhorse with a deceptively tricky game who seemed to be constantly overshadowed by bigger guys, bigger games, and bigger personalities.
Even when he was in the top five for four straight years, making the semifinals of Grand Slams, and winning the Year End Championships in 2009, it was hard to find out much about him. It seemed he was mainly known in the media for being the unknown. However a few rare glimpses into the world of the unassuming Russian revealed a man with refreshing honesty, surprising insight, overwhelming joy, and a killer sense of humor.
But the spotlight could barely find Davydenko when he was at the top of the game and it seems it hasn't even tried to find him since. He has struggled with his match play and confidence since last spring when a broken wrist derailed his game. His ranking has fallen to 30 in the world, and the only press he gets is a one-liner in the tournament summary about being upset in the first round. I've been searching for answers for quite some time, and I was really excited when I found out he would be at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic this year. If nobody else was going to shine a spotlight on him and ask some questions then I would just have to do it myself.
I began by observing him on the practice courts, which became an exhausting task because he was always out there. Nobody practiced on site more than he did the first few days of the tournament. Sometimes his game looked great, other times he looked like a shadow of his former self, but I was comforted in just knowing that he was out there....working, smiling, shrugging, plugging away. His wife Irina was often there in her bedazzled white flip-flops, encouraging him and providing advice. Oh Irina, I have missed you too.
When he won his second round match 6-3 7-5 against Qualifier Matthew Edben (he had a bye in the first round) it gave me a chance to ask some more questions, and much to my surprise I was not alone. It was a rainy day and his match had gotten in just under the wire, so there was a room full of bored journalists there ready to pry away. (The full presser video is below.)
Davydenko usually stays in Europe as long as possible prior to the U.S. Open to rack up points on clay, so just the fact that he was at Legg Mason was reason to be encouraged; it's not often you find 30 year old tennis players willing to change their schedule. He admitted that his clay court season was "not so great", and expressed that after first round defeats in Wimbledon, Stuggart, and Hamburg any result at Washington would help improve his ranking. Then with a smile on his face he elaborated on his reasons for not coming to Washington since 2003.
Players, when I ask them "How is Washington? They say "Terrible. Hot. Hotel is not good, food is not good, everything is shit." I say, "Okay, I don't go this year". Next year I say, "How is Washington?" They say "the same".
He went on to say that the players had raved about the recent improvements in the Washington tournament and that was a big part of him deciding to come back, but the fact that he could sit at a tournament and admit that all the players used to call it "shit" was just fantastic. That wall that most players put up in front of the media? That's not a part of who Nikolay Davydenko is, and it's another reason why I've always been drawn to him.
Despite the smiles and happy occasion the press conference had a bit of a somber feel to it. It's a tough thing to see a player drop in level the way Davydenko has recently, and everyone was searching for a simple answer as to why the man Juan Martin del Potro once referred to as "Playstation" was now struggling to win a match.
"You know for me this year is the most difficult... You know I remember I (was) top 10 and I beat guys who like 50, 100. Now I'm losing against Wildcards, Quallies, completely different tennis... I have a feeling like I don't know what can happen. I'm practicing every day, I do my job like normal, like everyone. But I cannot find like really a solution, like how I need to win. Maybe in my mind, maybe like confidence, I don't know. I try now to play every week tournament and maybe for some tournaments I just have luck.
There was a sadness in his eyes as he spoke, and it made me uneasy. He had used what I consider the dirty word in sport "luck". Sport is so much about what you can control...writers, fans, players, we all spend so much time analyzing the forehands and backhands, serves and returns, drive and work ethic, but really how much does this "luck" play a part in it? If you work hard, if you have the talent, if you have the ambition, then that should be enough. But it's not that simple. A part of me hated that Kolya knew that it wasn't that simple too. It was an answer, but it certainly wasn't the one I was hoping for.
One thing is for sure, he will be there if this intangible luck creature ever comes his way again. He's always been one of the workhorses of the tour (quite possibly the most successful "workhorse" in tennis history), and he expressed no desire to slow down.
I feel still young. I feel I can play. I don't want to retire. Guys already finishing at this time. I don't want to retire. I was thinking like, if I get result. If I have chance to play tennis, if I have chance to come to this tournament. Whay I going to do if I don't play tennis? Nothing.
It was an enchanting, if slightly depressing, statement from the uninhibited Davydenko. He's in no hurry to leave. He's not planning his life outside of tennis, he can't even think that far ahead. Though he's not getting the results he used to he's not too prideful to keep trying. It's encouraging to know that the qualities I admired in him when he was a top five staple are still there. His game might have changed, but he hasn't.
And the good news? He's going to be around every week. In fact, if it was up to him, we'd see him even more. He ended up losing in the 3rd Round of Legg Mason to Fernando Verdasco, but he'll be back in action next week. In fact, he says that because he's not getting in the same amount of matches that he used to: "I really can play every week, maybe two tournaments a week."
That'd be just fine with me.
-Lindsay Gibbs, contributing writer for OnTheGoTennis. Follow her on Twitter @linzsports