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The Man Who Can No Longer Be Ignored

DEUCE

Davydenko© Getty ImagesNikolay Davydenko celebrates after rallying from match point down to beat Rafael Nadal in the Doha final.

Nikolay Davydenko doesn't want the media attention that is heaped on his peers like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. He just wants their success. As the hottest player on the ATP World Tour heading into the Australian Open, the Russian may be ready to claim his first Grand Slam title.

It is time to sit up and take notice of Nikolay Davydenko - whether he likes it or not. The Russian, notorious for shunning the limelight and being overlooked by fans, media and sponsors alike, is playing some of the finest tennis of his career and may be ready to add a Grand Slam title to his collection.

Davydenko, who has finished no lower than No. 6 in the year-end South African Airways ATP Rankings for the past five years, has always been overshadowed by peers including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

"I have no pressure; that's the way I like it"

"I enjoy being like this, I don't want to be famous like these guys," he says. Why? "Because 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. For me to be famous is not so good.

"I really don't think about media," he added. "They just concentrate on the number one, two and three guys and that's it. For me, really, I have no pressure; that's how I like it. Nobody thinks about me, nobody talks about me. I am really relaxed, enjoying myself and just concentrating on the matches. If I win a Grand Slam, or if I become No. 1, I'd be the same guy. I really try not to be famous."

Davydenko, LondonAll he wants, he says, is a little more fan support, particularly when playing on home soil. "I was really disappointed in Moscow [earlier this year] when I played against Marat. Mostly, like 80 per cent, supported Safin," lamented Davydenko after his win over US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro in the final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. "For sure, it was the last tournament for him. But I saw how many people liked him, how they supported him and enjoyed how he played. I hope that now Marat is finished - and no longer as famous in Russia - that I will be the favourite for Russia and everybody will support me."

Tennis fans struggle to connect with Davydenko. They see only a hard-working and highly focused player, who rarely shows his emotions on court. The real Davydenko is straight-talking, fiercely loyal to those around him and blessed with a dry sense of humour.

Davydenko certainly does not lack support from his family, notably his brother and coach, Eduard, and wife of three years, Irina. Both travel with him, although Eduard will take a step back this season to spend more time with his family, and Davydenko knows that their support has been invaluable.

"I really enjoy it, when my family is with me I do better at tournaments and I don’t miss home at all. I can say I don’t want to go home, because my home is with me now."

Irina has travelled with him on the tour for the past six and a half years. The pair met when he made his Davis Cup debut against Czech Republic in 2003 and she first accompanied him to a tournament later that year in Estoril, where he succeeded in winning his second ATP World Tour title.

"It was the first time she had come to a tournament with me," recalled Davydenko. "I was feeling good because I was with my favourite woman, I saw that I could win tournaments and thought Why not? - She can travel with me to every tournament!

"I hope that now Marat is finished… that I will be the favourite for Russia"

"She just tries to relax my mind mostly. She helps me to enjoy myself outside of tennis and tells me to forget tennis because you cannot think about tennis 24 hours a day; you start to be tired. We don't speak about tennis and do something different."

Like many players, Davydenko, who grew up inspired to play like Ivan Lendl, was forced to make difficult decisions at a young age in order to pursue a tennis career at the highest level. In 1992, aged 11, he packed his bags, bade farewell to his parents, Vladimir and Tatjana, and went to live in Volgograd with his older brother Eduard, who had enjoyed a promising junior career before going to study sports training and coaching at university. He can remember no clear reason for wanting to undertake such a big move. Fate, he decides, must have intervened.

"I really don't remember very much about when I left. My mother just told me that I wanted to go and live with my brother and that’s what I did. I really don't know why I wanted to go there and play tennis. I'm not so crazy about practising tennis. But something changed in my life; I don’t know… I think a sign was given to me to tell me to change my life."

Davydenko with wife IrinaFrom that day forward, Eduard has served the role of big brother, coach and mentor through the good times and the bad, guiding Davydenko to 20 ATP World Tour titles, including three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophies, and four Grand Slam semi-finals. Davydenko has never once considered employing someone else.

"He's my brother, we have always been close. He always helps me with what I need. He knows me very well, and he can always give to me everything that I need. We spend a lot of time together, on the court and off the court also. He knows everything very well, that's why I would find it very difficult to change to another coach. I'm always happy with him, because he always knows what I need to do, how to practice and everything. He can prepare me for tournaments, and I feel confident."

Indeed, one of the few goals Davydenko and his brother are yet to achieve together is Grand Slam championship glory. Two semi-finals apiece at Roland Garros and the US Open, with defeat coming at the hands of Federer on three of the four occasions, are Davydenko's best efforts in the majors. But, as he approaches the Australian Open in the form of his life, the right-hander believes that the best is yet to come. Even a runner-up finish won't suffice for the determined Russian.

"I have enjoyed all these years in the Top 10. I’ve had great results, I've won 20 titles. I hope that’s not all, though"

"I feel I can beat everyone, because I've beaten everyone already," said Davydenko. "Maybe then I have better confidence for sure. I'm feeling like I can win and really play very good tennis.

"Five years in the Top 10 is not amazing, but it's good, it's really good. I have enjoyed all these years in the Top 10. I've had great results, I've won 20 titles. I hope that's not all, though. I will try to do more, I hope, if I can. I have memories of playing semi-finals in Grand Slams. But a semi-final is not like winning. You enjoy it only if you win the tournament."

DavydenkoDavydenko, who played dress up in 2008 while blogging for ATPWorldTour.com (photo left) (read blog), enters the Australian Open as the man of the moment, coming in on a nine-match unbeaten run and labelled as being in "incredible" form by Nadal. En route to winning the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in his final outing of 2009 he defeated Nadal in the round-robin stage and earned his first win in 13 attempts over Federer in the semi-finals. Then, in the first week of the 2010 season, he followed up by defeating the world's top two players again to triumph at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha.

Davydenko's performance in Doha was jaw-dropping. In the first set of his semi-final against Federer he put all 27 first serves into play en route to a 6-4, 6-4 win. In the final, a sizzling Nadal served up a bagel in the first set and held two match points in the second-set tie-break. But with his newfound self belief, Davydenko rallied to win 0-6, 7-6(8), 6-4.

As is his wont, though, Davydenko won't be putting himself under any additional pressure by declaring himself one of the favourites for the first Grand Slam of 2010 in Melbourne, where he is a three-time quarter-finalist. He is content to quietly make his way through the draw, round by round.

"Really, I don’t think about the Australian Open because it's too much pressure then for me. I enjoy coming to Australia, and will concentrate on the first round, then the second. For me, it's important to see how I play every match and feel my way step by step, and then my confidence will get better and better."

One thing is for sure: Even if the media is looking elsewhere, Davydenko's fellow players will be watching him very closely, indeed.

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