The last time Roger Federer met Nikolay Davydenko at the Australian Open, it was billed as the blockbuster of the tournament.
Many felt that going into that 2010 quarterfinal, the Russian was a chance to upset the great Swiss, a near unfathomable notion given Federer’s streak of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinal appearances was still very much alive.
Yet Davydenko had arrived in Melbourne that year ranked sixth and in the form of his life, fresh off victory at the ATP World Tour Finals to end the previous season, including a defeat of Federer along the way. Before he got to Melbourne he stopped off in Doha, repeating his win over Federer and also knocking over Rafael Nadal en route to yet another trophy.
And when he got a shot at the then 15-time major champion in the last eight at Rod Laver Arena, he quickly went up a set and a break. The pundits’ predictions looked set to ring true.
But then things changed for Nikolay. Cataclysmically.
A wobble when the finish line came briefly into sight, and a few errors, gave Federer a sniff. And the Swiss pounced, roaring back – winning the third set 6-0, no less – to progress in four. A couple of days later, it was Federer holding aloft the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup following his fourth career title at Melbourne Park.
Davydenko has never been beyond the third round of a Grand Slam since.
When Federer and Davydenko faced off on Thursday night at Australian Open 2013, it was a reminder of how things in tennis can change so quickly, and how they also remain the same.
Federer, the tournament’s second seed, has retained his place among the lofty boughs of the tennis tree. That showed no sign of changing following his 6-3 6-4 6-4 defeat of Davydenko, where Federer used his trademark weapons – disguised serve, venomous forehand, fabulous finesse and cat-like court coverage – to outclass his opponent. The win sends him through to the third round where he will face Australian upstart Bernard Tomic.
The Russian, having fallen as low No.56 in April 2012, currently sits at world No.40, explaining why the pair met at this early stage of the tournament rather than in their feature quarterfinal slot of 2010. Once as high as world No.3 and a perennial Grand Slam quarterfinalist and semifinalist, he only once managed to successfully navigate the first hurdle at a major in 2012.
Against Federer, his recent body of work makes for even more deflating reading – just one set won in five matches, including Thursday’s rout.
Really, the only change at Federer’s end was the neon-pink heel and laces of his shoes, a bright addition to his generally neutral wardrobe and from where he played some deft half-volleys on his backhand in the opening stages of the match.
It was a sign that his eye was truly in, something he confirmed in the sixth game with a flowing backhand winner up the line to bring up break point. Although he didn’t convert there, he did so a couple of points later to snare a 4-2 lead, a buffer he didn’t relinquish en route to banking the first set.
Although Davydenko may not be the same player as he was in his heyday, his game still presents an attractive contrast of styles with the Swiss. While Federer is all classic technique, Davydenko is the archetypal modern player, complete with double-handed backhand, power, ability to take the ball on the rise and suitable blend of offense and defence. The 31-year-olds engaged in some entertaining rallies, refusing to relinquish their positions on the baseline and producing rapid-fire exchanges that often extended to many shots.
However, Davydenko no longer possesses the consistency and relentlessness for which he was once famous, and although flashes of his brilliance emerged, he couldn’t sustain it. Time and time again he erred, finishing with 39 errors to Federer’s 17, the result of pressing too much to counter the Swiss’s sublime play.
It was particularly sublime in the third game of the second set, in which Federer played a beautifully-weighted lob on the stretch that Davydenko could only meekly stab back, immediately altering the complexion of the rally. A few points later, Federer again turned defence into attack, playing a deep crosscourt backhand that Davydenko struggled with and then later dragging the Russian well out of court before calmly slotting a winner to break for 2-1.
He maintained his advantage for the rest of the set, and did much the same after breaking immediately in the third.
He capped victory in just under two hours with an ace out wide.
Attention immediately turned to Federer’s looming battle with the vastly-improved Tomic. But unlike the slightly hysterical Australian press, the Swiss remained cool when assessing how the match might play out on Saturday.
“At the end of the day, you got to wait for the match. All the talk around it. I don't read the press, so I don't know it's going to affect me … I think it's important to be confident to a degree. It seems he has that. Now obviously we both have to live up to a big match, big hype, and then we can talk about it afterwards,” he said.
“Right now I'm still at the beginning of the season. He's obviously played a bit more. So he knows more so where he is with his game. So it's an interesting matchup right now I think for both of us.”
A healthy dose of perspective from Federer. Some things in tennis, it seems, never change. Neither do they any more for Davydenko, who heads home after yet another early Grand Slam exit.