Tennis: Davydenko on a charm offensive
Published 22/01/2010 | 05:00
The received wisdom on Nikolay Davydenko has long been that he has all the charm and wit of a Soviet tower block, all the star wattage of an eco-light bulb, and about as much chance of winning a grand slam title as one of the former Scotland Yard detectives now working in tennis' anti-corruption unit.
It would seem that a reassessment of Davydenko, the world No 6 and the anti-celebrity of the men's tennis elite, is required. Throughout his career he has been defined by what he is not: dynamic, engaging, asked to sign autographs, or a contender.
Yet at the Australian Open he has been attracting good notices for his humour and his tennis, with a few of his self-mocking one-liners almost as well timed as the shots off his strings.
On reaching the third round at Melbourne Park, Davydenko's post-match comments ranged from how he takes his vodka, "mixed with Red Bull, to give me a little bit of power in the disco", to why he always seems to be talking about money, "because I'm Russian", and why his wife doesn't want children yet, "she's scared I'll drop down the rankings".
The most significant change to Davydenko's image is how people perceive his tennis, as he is now being taken very seriously as a possible Australian Open champion. Once he was largely only known for a betting controversy, when the peer-to-peer gambling exchange Betfair made void more than £3m that had been wagered on the outcome of a match he lost in 2007 after picking up on irregular betting patterns.
After an investigation, Davydenko was not charged with any offence. Now he is famous for not being famous, something that he rejoices in, happily declaring this week that he is "not Paris Hilton". Yet, by the time this Australian Open is over, he could be a grand slam champion, which would bring genuine celebrity, whether he wants it or not, and it seems he almost certainly does not.
In an era when almost everyone is trying to be famous, there is something to admire about a sportsman who does not crave celebrity. Davydenko is gloriously unfashionable, and it feels as though he is fast becoming a cult figure, someone who can cut through a lot of the tennis celebrity nonsense.
"I enjoy being like this, not being famous like the other guys," said Davydenko, who was not asked to sign a single autograph when he won last November's end-of-season tournament in London. "I like to lead a much more private life. I enjoy going to clubs and having nobody recognise me. I can sometimes do crazy things and nobody will take pictures of me or tell the newspapers."
Davydenko has dropped just 10 games in six sets in reaching the last 32, though both his matches have been against qualifiers. His 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Ukraine's Illya Marchenko also meant that he extended his unbeaten run to 11 matches, a sequence that began in London in November.
No one arrived here with a more impressive set of recent results than Davydenko, as he defeated both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on the way to winning the most significant tournament of his career in London. He then beat the world's top two players again at his first event of this year in Qatar.
Davydenko's next opponent is Juan Monaco, an Argentine. He could meet Spain's Fernando Verdasco, last season's semi-finalist, in the fourth round, and there is the possibility of a quarter-final against Federer, the runner-up to Nadal on the Rod Laver Arena last season. Davydenko's previous best result at the slams is a semi-final.
Perhaps his increased belief is why he appears to be in full self-mocking mode, making those Hilton comments, and then his remarks about vodka, money, starting a family and who his wife, Irina, predicts will win the men's singles title: "She always thinks I can win everything, so she thinks I can win the tournament." Suddenly, Mrs Davydenko is not alone in that opinion. (© Daily Telegraph, London)