As he prepared for his 20th meeting with Nikolay Davydenko, Federer certainly knew what to expect from the Russian who had won only two of the previous nineteen. A shot-maker who excels at taking groundstrokes early and creating acute angles with them, Davydenko compensated with those skills and with a crisp return for his lack of a dominant serve.
Despite Federer’s stranglehold over their rivalry, many of their matches had stayed closer than the overall record suggested, such as a three-setter last year in Rotterdam. And, while Davydenko never quite regained his sharpest form following wrist surgery and an extended absence in 2010, he had flickered to life by reaching the Doha final this month after upsetting Ferrer. True to their history, none of that recent success mattered as Federer recorded a solid straight-sets triumph 6-3 6-4 6-4, during which did not face a break point against this quality returner.
Three years ago here, the Russian had led Federer by a set and a break before imploding en route to a four-set loss. This time, the Swiss looked in no mood to let his opponent dig such a hole for him, crafting two break points in Davydenko’s second service game. His movement and defense shone as he tracked down a barrage of those familiar angled groundstrokes, extending points long enough to extract errors from the inconsistent underdog. Davydenko salvaged both of those break points with more competitive resilience than we have come to expect from him, even at his best, but he could not turn that accomplishment into a break of his own in the next game. Escaping a deuce situation, Federer kept the pressure on the Russian.
That pressure bore fruit in the sixth game, although Davydenko saved two more break points with the help of a wayward Swiss who accumulated 14 unforced errors to that stage. An unforced error from his opponent on a cross-court backhand handed the first break of the match to Federer, though, and he wasted little time in consolidating the lead. Although Davydenko clung to his serve as he fended off another pair of break points, a love hold by Federer brought the first set to a routine conclusion. The second seed’s groundstrokes had looked uneven so far, but his serve offered him a decisive advantage over his opponent.
A quick break early in the second set confirmed the suspicion that Davydenko might not sustain a high level of resistance against a player who had conquered him so many times. The weight of his futility against Federer had appeared to weigh upon him in many of their marquee meetings before, and such seemed the case again. Endowed with a wry sense of humor and the fatalistic streak that often accompanies it, Davydenko looked resigned to his fate after a set and a half. His shoulders sagged as Federer strolled around the court with the gait of a man who knew himself master of the moment.
The rest of the second set unfolded uneventfully. When a slight spot of bother surfaced in the eighth game, which he trailed 15-30, Federer found the first serves that he needed to shut Davydenko’s narrow window of hope. In the following game, he let a set point slip away on his opponent’s serve with a forehand error and squandered another as well. Now 2 for 11 on break points, Federer did not allow that dismal record to trouble him and comfortably served out the 6-4 set.
Only two men, Tsonga and Djokovic, ever have defeated Federer at a major after losing the first two sets, and the aging Davydenko clearly lacked the willpower to join them. He dropped his serve meekly t start the third and never seriously threatened thereafter in a match that had seemed perfunctory for much of the last two sets. Under some pressure in an early service game, Federer threaded a lovely backhand pass down the line to negate a strong Davydenko cross-court approach and held two points later with a pinpoint drop shot. Several games later, the Swiss finished his outing with a service winner.
To be sure, Federer looked a few notches below his vintage self tonight, often shanking routine groundstrokes and enduring a poor break-point conversion ratio. But he still will enter his third-round match against Bernard Tomic as a heavy favorite considering the latter’s unimpressive performance earlier in the day. Tomic narrowly escaped qualifier Daniel Brands while struggling with his return game, an issue that will loom large against Federer’s sparkling serve. The world #2 thus can expect to play himself into the tournament one round at a time.