Davydenko steps into the spotlight

Victory at the World Tour Finals last year has transformed the Russian journeyman into a Grand Slam contender. He tells Paul Newman in Melbourne why now is his time and how he can win the Australian Open

After winning the biggest title of his career at the ATP World Tour Finals in London two months ago Nikolay Davydenko admitted that nobody had asked for his autograph that week. Although an almost permanent member of the world's top 10 for more than four years, the 28-year-old Russian had been the elite group's ultimate journeyman, a consummate professional who was too good for most but never made it to the finish line at the biggest events and rarely beat the very best players.

That victory at the O2 Arena, however, has changed everything. In winning the Qatar Open a fortnight ago Davydenko extended his recent winning run against the world's two best players – he has won his last two matches against Roger Federer, having lost the previous 12, and his last three against Rafael Nadal – while his 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Illya Marchenko in the second round of the Australian Open here yesterday was his 11th win in succession.

Until recently almost the only time Davydenko had been in the spotlight was when one of his matches drew the attention of investigators because of suspicious betting patterns. His limited grasp of English – his vocabulary is reasonable but he has trouble putting the words in the right order – may have put off interviewers, but he has demonstrated a dry sense of humour here.

Asked yesterday whether he drank vodka, Davydenko said yes but added: "I don't drink so much because, you see, I'm skinny. I mix only. Sometimes I drink clear vodka, sometimes mixed with Red Bull. It gives me a little bit of power in a nightclub or disco. Because if I drink only vodka I go straight to sleep."

Having had trouble finding sponsors, Davydenko makes no secret of the importance of money, especially after he won $1.51m (about £930,000) in London. He said he had invested his winnings and not spent much on a present for his wife. "Look, if I buy everything for my wife, how I can invest money?"

Why did Davydenko talk so much about money?

"Because we are Russian. Russians are always talking about money. And you know all Russians can get only cash, not like you guys, only credit cards."

Juan Martin del Potro, having been beaten by Davydenko in the London final, said the Russian "plays like PlayStation, running everywhere". While fitness and court speed have been crucial, there is much more to Davydenko's game. He hits the ball early – he is one of the best returners of serve – and attacks at almost every opportunity. He is even hitting killer stop volleys with increasing regularity.

"I think I've started to play the volley much better," he said. "If you see my match against Nadal in the final in Doha, I start to go to the net. I start to make some points with the volley, make so many winners. Maybe I need to serve a bit better sometimes. But I try, try to do different [things]. I don't only think about the baseline. For sure, I want to be fast. I want to run fast. Like Del Potro tell me, I am like PlayStation 3 in London. Now I try to become level PlayStation 4, to be faster and faster."

He said he liked his non-celebrity status – "I am not Paris Hilton" – and would like to have children. Asked whether he would like them to see him play, Davydenko replied: "Yes. No. Yes and no. Really, I would like have kids now, like Federer already has two, or Hewitt. We have the same age. But my wife doesn't want to stay at home. She travels with me now.

"Now is an important time. Now I'm top 10. She is scared about if I start to – with kids – lose tennis and go down, stray. That's because I might start to miss them and I want to go home. I don't want to practise. That's what is different. Maybe for me it is better to be with my wife at this time, no kids."

Does he think he can win here? "I know I'm very good player. If I feel good, for sure I can beat everyone. But you can't feel good every day. That's difficult. I hope I can feel good here in Australia every day. For sure, feeling good you can win matches and you can win, you know, the tournament. But, you know, it's only four days here. Just the second round."

The second round proved a hurdle too far for Spain's David Ferrer, who lost to Marcos Baghdatis, the beaten 2006 finalist, despite winning the first two sets. Baghdatis now meets Lleyton Hewitt, with both men hoping for an earlier finish than two years ago, when the Australian completed his victory at 4.33am.

Novak Djokovic lost the first set before beating Switzerland's Marco Chiudinelli, whose friend, Federer, needed only 99 minutes to beat Victor Hanescu in front of a watching Prince William, who is on a royal visit Down Under. During his on-court interview after the match Federer was asked if he would like to address the prince. "Your royal highness, welcome to the world of tennis," the king of the court said. "Thanks for coming."

Off court, Federer and Serena Williams both wanted their pictures taken with the prince, who asked the photographer: "Could you make sure you send back copies to the Palace, please?"

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