If you are a person of the French persuasion who happens to follow tennis with une grande passion, this past week in Paris was a bitter disappointment for you to swallow. All of the pullouts before the event started gutted the field leaving a dismal pall over the locals. Then the final on Sunday yielded a real journeymen’s nightmare from hell in the shapes of Nikolay Davydenko and Dominik Hrbaty. A far cry from the Roger Nadal blockbuster they were dreaming of.
Hell, Paris ended up being on a par with the events in places like Hamburg and Cincinnati, where flocks of players pulled out for various physical complaints, but mostly because of poor tournament scheduling. Officials will complain mightily, as have others before them this year, about the length of the season, the injuries and the withdrawals. We will hear more ominous rumblings about “repercussions” for stuff like this, but in the end it is just more yakkety-yak from officialdom. Nobody will step up and make changes to avoid over-scheduling or poor scheduling of events. Nobody wants to give up their tournament whether it’s a big deal tournament or a little penny-ante affair.
The only consistent thing I saw from tennis officialdom this season were efforts by the WTA to make life miserable for players such as Lindsay Davenport, who was denied several wild card entries to events she should have been playing in, was healthy enough to play in, but somehow wasn’t playing in.
I don’t hold out much hope for the men getting their act together either.
For a guy like Sunday’s winner Davydenko, the season is probably never long enough. He’s the only one who seems to thrive on playing each and every week. Lucky for him, his body at 5’10” and 154 pounds is lithe and light enough that he stays pretty free of injuries. He probably doesn’t even get colds. Earlier in the year when he started winning consistently, I wondered if he was high in the rankings just because he was so healthy and he played so much. He usually seemed to be one of the last guys standing. It doesn’t matter if you are really any good or not, you find ways to get through the draws and boost your ranking.
After watching him move through the Paris draw, I think we have to give this invisible man of tennis closer scrutiny. He deserves it now. The colors of his game are emerging. And no, Martha, they aren’t all grey. Well, he could do with a new wardrobe. His clothing looks like he pinched it from someone on the way to the court. No metrosexual snazzy threads on this lean frame.
Here are some of my impressions of the balding one, who I started to think was related in another life to his taller shadow on tour, Mr. Ljubicic. Both of them have been accused of being too mundane to be recognized as stars with games that lacked excitement even as they were remarkably steady. Both of them turned in solid years which should lay that one to rest once and for all.
Davydenko has very compact and efficient strokes like the man’s personality itself. Calm and measured. He is tall enough but not towering. His serve has some nice laser-like pace on it but it is by no means overpowering. He is more about placement. His ground strokes are very solid off both sides, but you can’t say he has a big kill shot, or even a big weapon.
Yet he gets the job done. He plays with a certain intelligent persistence. There is no drama on court with him, no tantrums. His eyes may open wide, his lips part a bit, a slight shake of the head when he miss-hits a shot. That’s all. Then he’s back to work.
And work is what Nikolay Davydenko thrives on. He treats tennis as a business. As mostly a business. His brother Eduard who coaches and travels with him everywhere says his brother plays a lot to pad his bank account. No bones made there, thank you. Greed is good.
Maybe this is why America is not producing the same level of tennis champions as we used to. The incentive may not be there. Our kids have so many other sports to play that are more popular and don’t require all the years of training tennis requires. They can do other sports more easily and make more money and get that limelight. Our personalities seem to be geared to quick fixes, we want it now and we want it easy. Who in blazes wants to spend time developing a serve and volley game, assuming you feel as I do that there is still a place for it in today’s game? That takes time and no one wants to do it anymore. We may hard-pressed to find players who want to play, period.
The Russians have that hunger big time. The men and the women. Yevgeny Kafelnikov was the same way, he played everything lying around from Australia to Toronto. You saw a ton of him in doubles, too. He played so much he invested in his own private plane. You could say Marat Safin is more the artiste type, and God knows we all love to watch them at work, but we’ve all grown nearly as bald as Davydenko watching Safin over the years. He’s enough to make a girl tear her hair out by the roots. Davydenko is the nice, steady type. In tennis as in life, mothers everywhere probably tell their daughters to land a guy like that. Stay away from the Safins.
Davydenko goes down a little easier now and I am beginning to like and really admire his game. He makes the most of what he has. His head adjusts well to any situation. He goes for his chances. Against Hrbaty on Sunday, he continually held sway at the baseline and pushed his man around. He takes the ball very early and he creates a lot of angles. He ran Hrbaty every which way and basically smothered him from the outset with his steady serving, returning and sharp angled shots. He can change the direction of balls and swat them up the line for winners. And he obviously loves being in finals, having won ten in his career and lost only three. The man knows when to smell the money.
Hrbaty got blown away, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, which was a bit surprising to me, even though Davydenko played really well the entire week. These two had an epic five setter at the Australian Open this year, with Hrbaty two sets up before the Russian came back to win. They can both be very steady in very long rallies. But not in Paris. The shift differential for Davydenko was +20 winners to errors, which is remarkably high.
For Hrbaty, it was the first Masters Series final in his career. He had an off and on year, slowly getting better as the year went on. For Davydenko, it is a richly deserved first Masters Series win. He’s been beating his head against it through 34 matches and finally he gets his first shield. His 67 match wins is the second best on tour this season, behind you know who at 87.
Some may call it the scraps left from Roger Nadal pulling out. If Davydenko had not had such a good year, I might be saying that too. But he has been knocking at our doors for a while now and it’s high time we welcomed in the lean and hungry one. He is at a career high Number 3 ranking and it feels very appropriate. Do you think he expects to do well in Shanghai or what?