02:07 PM GMT November 06, 2018
For one spell-binding week in November 2009, everything that Nikolay Davydenko touched turned to gold at The O2 in London. Among the glitterati of the ATP World Tour, in the first year of dry ice walk-ons and extravagant show production, the Russian produced exquisite tennis on the wooden boards to capture the crowning achievement of his career, the 2009 Nitto ATP Finals title.
Juan Martin del Potro summarised it best, after losing to Davydenko 6-3, 6-4 in the 80-minute title match, when he admitted, "He plays like [on] PlayStation. He’s very fast. You know, he runs everywhere. It’s very difficult to make winners." It was welcome praise for 28-year-old Davydenko, the possessor of a dry sense of humour, who had long craved a share of the limelight. The amiable and determined professional had become the first year-end championship titlist (since 1970) not to have reached a Grand Slam championship final.
"I watched each of the tournament's finals until 2008, when I first appeared [finishing as the runner-up]," said World No. 7 Davydenko. "Every great player has won this tournament, but in 2009 my name will be engraved on the trophy. I think it's amazing. I know the history of the tournament and my name will always be there… I hope after this tournament that I become more famous in Russia."
More than 250,000 fans, including 17,500-strong sold-out crowds for nine of the 15 sessions, turned out on the Greenwich Peninsula to watch the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But it was Davydenko who won the biggest title of his career — all without a racquet sponsor or a request to sign an autograph. "Hmm, not once," Davydenko admitted. "Really. Because maybe everybody was concentrating on Nadal and Federer. Everybody was looking the other way, not at me."
It was a remarkable title run, considering Davydenko had been limited to just four tournaments in as many months at the start of 2009, due to a foot injury. Having posted a 50-12 match record from May onwards — including the Rolex Shanghai Masters, Umag and Hamburg titles — to secure his place, he arrived in London without a winning FedEx ATP Head2Head record against all of his round-robin opponents, Nadal (3-4), Djokovic (2-2) and Robin Soderling (3-6).
Davydenko, at his best, struck the ball early and flat, hugging the baseline, but it was Djokovic, in the opening group match, who extended his winning streak after back-to-back titles at the Swiss Indoors Basel and Rolex Paris Masters. The Serbian won 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, but Davydenko still drew confidence from the defeat.
In overcoming leg and breathing difficulties throughout the week, Davydenko went on to beat No. 2-ranked Nadal 6-1, 7-6(4) and Soderling 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3 to progress to the semi-finals. There, he overcame the only player in the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings he had yet to defeat, World No. 1 Federer. His 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory, by the smallest of margins, was his first win over the Swiss in 12 meetings.
Fifteen hours later, Davydenko, who often trained for only two hours per day and did little gym work in order to maintain his 5'10", 154-pound frame, played flawless tennis against Del Potro, the new US Open champion, to lift the silver Nitto ATP Finals trophy. Del Potro, 22, was full of praise, saying, "He worked hard to beat every player here this week. He played unbelievable tennis and… I think he is a great champion."
The Nitto ATP Finals is celebrating its 10th edition at The O2 in London from 11-18 November 2018.