INTERVIEW- Nikolay Davydenko: “Nadal on hard was for me just like another opponent”
These days, Nikolay Davydenko is living a peaceful life coaching kids aged 9-11 years old, a group that includes his daughter Ekaterina.
“And some clients, people who can pay money“, Davydenko said laughingly.
Relaxed and in great spirits, the 41-year old Russian embarked on a journey in his career that took him to number 3 in the world whilst winning 21 titles.
In his interview with CLAY, Davydenko looked back on some of the famous matches he played against Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, as well as his thoughts on Novak Djokovic when he first saw the Serbian as a junior.
Davydenko also spoke about his troubles finding sponsors, one match he would like to play all over again, why it was easy for him to play Nadal on hardcourts and so difficult to face Federer…
Do you have an ambition to be a coach on the ATP Tour?
I spent a few weeks with Karen Khachanov a couple of years ago. He asked me whether I wanted to travel with him full-time for the season, but I have a family with three kids, I just can’t do it. I said “sorry, but I can travel for just a few tournaments“. Not now – I have done it as a player, but I can’t travel the whole time now as well. If I did not have a family, I would think about it, why not – different countries, enjoying restaurants, nice life, but it is impossible now. It is ten more years until my kids grow up, so I have time to change my mind. Who knows what will happen.
What would you say are the biggest differences in tennis now compared to when you were a top player?
I have to admit that I had stopped watching tennis for a while, but then I started to commentate for Eurosport during Russian players’ matches at Grand Slams,. Now I follow it more closely.
In my opinion, tennis is not making much progress. The players who are at the top now – not Nadal and Djokovic, but the younger generation –are not that good technically. I got surprised by that. It’s more physical – big serves, hitting hard–, but we still see that Nadal and Djokovic can control all this power over the new generation. They are still winning Slams and beating guys who are ten years younger than them, which is amazing. Anyway, I do not feel that the new generation is playing on an unbelievable level.
Let’s go through some of the biggest moments of your career. You have talked about some of those in the past, but now after some time has passed, what’s the one you remember most? The victory over Nadal in the final of Miami ’08, maybe?
For me, playing against Nadal on hard felt like playing against just another opponent. I have beaten him in all our matches on hardcourt, but I lost every match on clay, which is expected, he is still winning Roland Garros.
Davydenko’s answer is not fully accurate. Nadal beat him once in hard courts. It was the first time they met each other on tour: Round Robin of the Tennis Masters Cup in China 2006 (5-7, 6-4, 6-4). After that, the Russian beat the Spaniard in the next five matches over that surface. He only lost a set.
There were many matches that I remember fondly. You mentioned the match against Nadal in Miami. I remember vividly beating Nadal in the Shanghai finals and Djokovic in the semifinals, in three sets – such a great memory! Also, beating Federer in the semis in London (ATP Finals)… that was an unbelievable match for me.
I am the type of guy who remembers many matches – versus Coria at Roland Garros in the fourth round for example, I could go on…
You had a winning record versus Nadal (6-5). What was the key for you to be so successful against arguably the greatest player of all time?
In tennis, it is about matchups – my game matched up well with Nadal’s on hardcourts, I had no problems with him. On the other hand, I could never beat James Blake on hard because he was hitting hard and he was looking to finish off points in two or three shots.
Against clay court specialists – Spaniards and Argentinians – those were the easiest matches for me on hardcourt, because they play long rallies and hit with a lot of spin. I had it tough against North Americans who hit hard and flat, and wanted short points.
So, Federer was my toughest opponent. Why? Because his forehand was extremely fast and his serve was very accurate, I could not gain any sort of control against him.
That win over Federer on your path to get the ATP Finals was one of only two victories in 21 matches against him. What do you remember about that match?
I had so many opportunities against Federer, but he was always a much better player near the end of the sets. I had set points, I made it into the tiebreaks, but then i was always loosing. Not in London. That time, I felt like it was my time to beat him, and I got lucky a bit as well.
My mentality changed after that, so I beat him easily in Doha in our next match as well. That time, I felt like I could beat him, it is no secret that I had a problem mentally when facing Federer.
Comes to mind the Australian Open 2010 quarterfinals – you were a set and almost a double break up in the second, but you lost. In Roland Garros as well, three very tight sets. What was the reason for that mental obstacle when you faced Federer?
My confidence was never on the required level to beat Federer, he always had the edge towards the end of the set. It was always the same story. When the crucial time in the match comes, confidence is what matters.
Trying different tactics – hitting the ball harder or adding more spin – did not help. When you look at the guys who were winning against him – Nadal, Djokovic, Murray – they were physically stronger and better fitness-wise than I was: they played long rallies, they ran…
For me, it was tougher because my body could’t hold the same level for five hours.
Pick one match in your career that you would like to play all over again.
Semifinals at Roland Garros against Mariano Puerta in 2005. I was 4-2 up in the fifth set, but I was dying on the court. My coach (his brother Eduard Davydenko) told me that I should have asked for a physio, to give myself time to recover for a few minutes. Maybe I should have done that, to get my power and focus back. That was probably the biggest loss of my career. From 4-2 up, I could not put ball in court anymore, I was so tired and lost 6-4. I would change that match, I should have been smarter. A stupid mistake!
After that, Federer was always the one who deprived you of playing a Slam final…
Exactly, the match against Puerta was my only real chance to be in an Slam final. I felt able to compete hard against Rafa, but best-of-five, the chances were low. I played against him in Rome, lost in three tight sets after three and a half hours, and I finished physically empty.
With an illustrious career –three Masters 1000, an ATP Finals title and other seventeen tourneys won, twenty one 21 ATP titles altogether. Don’t you feel that haven’t played a big final was unfair?
If not for Federer, maybe I would have a better chance to be in the finals (laughing). He stopped me in the quarterfinals many times too. But I am proud of the fact that I won a match against every player in the top 10 – I didn’t end up like some players who have lost every match against a certain opponent.
What are some important traits of your career that people are perhaps unaware of?
I was top 3 , top 5 for five years, but it was difficult for me to find good sponsors because I’m Russian. At that time, there was no social media… All the people knew who I was, but I did not feel like I had many fans, to be honest.
Also, I always played on Court 1 or Court 2 at the Slams, other players got to play on the biggest stadiums from the beginning, which suited me. I didn’t want to play the early rounds at the main stadiums, because I felt a lot of pressure, like: ‘I am a top player, everybody expects me to win’. With less people in the stands, the pressure wasn’t that big.
How was your relationship with yor main sponsors?
It was tough, completely shitty! Nike told me something along the lines: ‘We have Federer at number one, we will see when you get to number one’. If I was American at number five in the world, maybe I would have gotten the contract with Nike. Or with Adidas if I was German. It depends where are you from. The only good contract I had was with Prince and it lasted for three or four years before they got into financial trouble.
Your style of play – taking the ball early, clean shots… Did it come naturally or were you taught by someone to play that way?
It is a good question! When I was in the top 100, close to top 50, I used to play differently. I was staying far behind the baseline, just hitting balls over the net, not attacking. Afterwards, in practice I would play against two opponents – my coach would hit the ball powerful and deep, and the sparring partner would give me slower and shorter balls. I was always on the move – stepping into the court, then heading back. I was 21-22 years old at the time. In practice, I felt that I could do it in matches as well, so I started to be more aggressive as my career progressed.
Did you think that Djokovic could become such a great player when you first saw him play?
I have one anecdote when it comes to Novak, from his time as a junior. We were in Rome and he was my partner for the warmup before the match. I was surprised with the way he controlled the ball – I was hitting really good balls and each one came back. He moved really well too.
He was 16-17 years old at the time, he was working with Riccardo Piatti, and he told me: ‘Novak will be the next top player’. And I answered: ‘It seems so’. In two years, he was already in the top 10. Amazing – boom. And he is still there.
I think he was very well coached throughout his career, which allowed for his talent to blossom and for him to improve as a player. Novak always had a great team around him, which helped him to last at the top for so long. He is getting older now, it will be interesting, but I am sure he wants to win a few more Slams.
Will he be able to do it?
He has a good chance in Wimbledon and at the US Open, provided that he plays. Depends on his preparation. Next season, I don’t know – with every year, it gets harder when you get to a certain age. I don’t think he will play until he is 40 – to win Slams at 40, best of five, there is no chance, not possible.
What is your opinion about everything that happened in Australia with Djokovic?
I don’t understand what he tried to do. I did support him, but it was him against countries, him against the world. It doesn’t matter whether you are number one or whatever, but even before he landed, I had a feeling that he wouldn’t play there. Sometimes I don’t understand what’s in his head. Normally, Serbs and Russians have the same mentality, but I feel that Novak is sometimes German, sometimes Italian.
Rafael Nadal winning his 22nd Grand Slam title at Roland Garros… A few great matches, foot injury – what do you make of his title run?
Zverev had a good chance to beat him in the semis, but he was unlucky. Usually, the bigger chance to beat Nadal in Paris is in the early rounds, because he is still not playing his best.
It is amazing what he has done. I think it was risky health-wise what he has done with the foot, but he is absolutely allowed to do it. Maybe his mentality was that it might be his last Roland Garros, so he went all-in not minding the consequences.
Is Federer gonna come back competitive?
I think he is playing in Basel to finish his carrer there. That´s my opinion.
How about Carlos Alcaraz and his game?
He is the new Spanish Terminator! I think he has a great team with Juan Carlos Ferrero as his coach. If he stays injury-free, Alcaraz will have an incredible career.