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Champ Djokovic taken the distance by Davydenko

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 11:50

A three set thriller was no doubt the last thing Novak Djokovic would have picked for the 95th match of the year, but the world No.3 did almost everything the hard way en route to a 3-6 6-4 7-5 victory over Nikolay Davydenko.

The Serb’s victory means he will now play Robin Soderling on Wednesday after the Swede posted a second incredible victory over Rafael Nadal following his Roland Garros triumph back in May.

The decision to play that match during the afternoon session, with beaten Group B duo Nadal and Davydenko playing later in the evening, is sure to rankle with Djokovic, the defending champion having won last year’s Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.

“I haven’t felt great on the court today – I’m definitely not the fittest guy on the Tour right now,” Djokovic said after more than two hours of intense tennis. Perhaps not, but he arrived in London on the back of 18 wins from 19 matches, having clinched titles in Beijing, Basel and Paris ahead of the season finale.

If Djokovic is to be considered the form player in the eight-man field, Davydenko came in as the tournament’s dark horse. The Russian turned around a season that saw him slip out of the top ten for the first time since 2005 with title victories in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai that virtually guaranteed his spot by the year’s final regular season event in Paris

Not only that, but along with Nadal, Davydenko had beaten Djokovic on his way to the Shanghai title – the Serb’s solitary defeat since the US Open. The duo could only be separated by a tiebreak then, and once again there was little to separate the two in their opening match at this year’s World Tour Finals.

Djokovic came out of the blocks quickly, hammering a pair of forehand winners past Davydenko early on. But as always the Russian was unflappable, moving well to meet fire with fire and taking the game to the Serb, who quickly tightened with nerves as he failed to make a telling impression.

Instead it was Davydenko who broke first, handed his opportunity by a string of errors from Djokovic. And if the Serb was wasteful with two break back points in the next game, he was downright charitable when he saved Davydenko the bother of serving for the set, falling to another break that prompted him to plant his racket into the new court in frustration.

The Serb, staring and gesticulating towards his crimson-clad entourage as points went begging, proved to be his own worst enemy at the start of the second. The free-flowing confidence he had shown at the start of the match had deserted him, replaced by a nervousness and petulance that pervaded his game and threatened to make the night easy for Davydenko.

But Djokovic found a way to stay in the match, abandoning the quick points his body undoubtedly craves at the end of a long season in favour of conservative play. A tactic that plays into Davydeno’s hands, it was a risk, but one that eventually paid off as the Russian, who rarely moves beyond fourth gear, slipped briefly into reverse at 4-4 as he dragged a backhand into the tramlines on break point.

Davydenko called for a medical time out before Djokovic served for the set to treat a respiratory complaint that has dogged him for the past few weeks. He showed no signs of discomfort on his return, but despite reaching 30-40 as his opponent tightened again, he could not stop the Serb leveling the match with three big points.

Djokovic started the third set with renewed vigour and broke immediately, though few expected him to race away with the decider as Federer had against Soderling the night before – and so it proved. The quality of play dropped as the tension got to both players, particularly Djokovic – by now bouncing the ball before serving so often it threatened to become its own spectator sport. He saved three break points in game six. He found himself serving for the match at 5-4. But with the nerves getting to the Serb, Davydenko kept the match alive with a sublime backhand winner on break point to level at 5-5.

It was as close as the Russian came to victory as his own challenge evapotaed in the next game as Djokovic broke to love. At the second time of asking, Djokovic finished the job on his second match point, leaving the thoroughly entertained crowd 25 minutes to catch the last Jubilee Line tube from the O2, scheduled for 00.16.

“He was the better player in the first two sets,” admitted the Serb afterwards, :I was lucky to get through and win this. I was fighting for every service game and in the end I’m happy with the performance.”

Earlier, Lukas Kubot and Olivier Marach completed an unlikely quartet of result from the opening doubles matches, beating Lucas Dlouhy and Leander Paes 6-3 7-6(3) in a edgy encounter.

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