Wednesday, August 29, 2007

For Davydenko, a New Kind of Grind

Published: August 28, 2007

The last thing Nikolay Davydenko appears to be is the kind of tennis player likely to do something splashy, much less crazy. He is fair-haired but prematurely balding, athletic but unimposing, efficient but unspectacular.

You could call him the opposite of his fast-living countryman Marat Safin, a Russian well known for flaming on to Grand Slam championship heights and out of the top 10 at the drop of a hat, or serve.

Davydenko, No. 4 in the world, is the epitome of stolid consistency, a grind-it-out overachiever lacking that one trusty weapon to make him a serious threat to outlast the field at a two-week event. He lives to move his opponent around, set up the occasional two-fisted backhand winner.

For the likes of Davydenko, it is all about what the computer says, all about the points. A man like him, he insisted yesterday, does not have the motivation or time to take unnecessary risks, play with matches, fire or bookies.

“I need to defend points,” he said yesterday after dispatching an American, Jesse Levine, in the first round of the United States Open, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1.

“For me losing points, I losing my ranking.”

Forgive the fractured English of a 26-year-old who was born in Ukraine under Soviet rule, moved with his family to Germany at 15, was granted Russian citizenship at 18 and now lists the tax haven of Monte Carlo as home. Understand what life on the Tour has been like for him since gambling irregularities surfaced involving a match he played this month in Sopot, Poland, and put him in the middle of an investigation by the Association of Tennis Professionals.

“I’m top player, and like fans and everybody see I am like guy, bad guy, who gambling,” he said. “Difficult, really. It’s like mentally you’re tired.”

In the match under suspicion, Davydenko won the first set from 87th-ranked Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. Through a British online gambling company, money on Arguello inexplicably poured in, raising the odds on Davydenko and the overall amount bet to 10 times the average amount.

The gambling company, Betfair, rang the alarm, alerted the tennis authorities. This fall, Davydenko will have to convince investigators that whatever happened with the online gamblers, it had nothing to do with him and the sore toe that he said forced him to retire from the Arguello match in the third set.

Maybe, he said, the betting had to do with three first-round defeats he suffered in previous weeks. Maybe he or his wife mentioned to someone somewhere that he was hurt. Whatever the case, it was difficult not to feel some compassion for Davydenko as he faced and cooperated with an inquisition of mostly American journalists, acknowledging the gravity of even the sniff of illegal gambling connected to sport.

That’s why the United States Tennis Association has hired a company to monitor on-site gambling at the Open. Nothing terrifies the people who run sports more — not steroids or cheating or domestic violence or even the sickening subject of tortured dogs.

Michael Vick may never win back public favor after admitting in federal court yesterday to being complicit to dogfighting and killing, but the N.F.L. had better find out all there is to know about the kind of gambling operation Vick was financing. His defenders, the N.A.A.C.P. included, need to understand that comparing Vick to hunters, the Elmer Fudds of America, does not address the scarier revelation of the overall lifestyle he was leading, those with whom he consorted.

This is what Davydenko can expect to be asked, most likely in mid-September. What does he know? Whom does he know? Nothing, he said. Nobody. No bad guys, and especially no Russian bad guys for those already making insinuations about links to organized crime.

He goes to Moscow a few weeks a year to play tennis and wouldn’t know where to look for trouble, except maybe for Brighton Beach.

“You know, like, maybe if you go now to Brooklyn, you find Russian mafia here in New York,” he said, smiling after showing off his New Yawk sense of humor.

Here at America’s Grand Slam event, Davydenko was relegated to the grandstand court for his morning match, in front of a small gathering of fans who didn’t heckle him, if they even knew him as the player connected to the gambling inquiry. Other years, he would have been a complete afterthought on a day when an African-American legend (Althea Gibson) was being honored, however belatedly and posthumously, and when two young American men (Donald Young and John Isner) won for the first time at the Open.

“How many weeks I get, how many months?” Davydenko said, referring to the character questions.

As long as it takes for the ATP to get satisfactory answers, unfortunately. And only then will Davydenko be allowed to resume grinding away in peace, week after lucrative week.



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