Davydenko, Clijstersbag Titles

Proud winners... Nikolay Davydenko.-PICS: AP

Rafael Nadal, who not so long ago was dominating the men’s tour, is still without a title for more than eight months after an astonishing defeat in the final of the Qatar Open in Doha on January 9. Nadal failed to convert two second set match points in a 0-6, 7-6 (10/8), 6-4 loss to Nikolay Davydenko, which will once again raise the question whether he has the confidence to fight his way back to the pinnacle.

Nadal also let slip a 3-1 final set lead, and retreated into more defensive and containing patterns which contributed significantly to the courageous Davydenko revival.

“Maybe I needed to be a bit more calm,” Nadal said about the second match point which got away. “But probably that’s because I have not won a tournament for so many months. In this tournament I came back to play my best tennis for a long time,” claimed Nadal, making the best of his disappointment. “Anyway I lost today. He played unbelievable tennis. He was just better.”

For three-quarters of an hour this had looked impossible. During that phase the Russian began uncertainly, Nadal imposed a flatter-hitting, earlier-taken, more enterprising attack which he had been employing during the tournament, and had romped through seven games without reply.

When Davydenko began to play more as he had against Roger Federer in the semifinals, taking the initiative wherever possible, hitting stridently and if necessary finishing the rally in the forecourt, Nadal fought back aggressively from 3-5 down, and looked odds on to close the match out in the tie-break.

On one of his match points, at 6-5, Davydenko played just too well, but on the second, at 8-7, Nadal earned himself a relatively pressure-free hit on the forehand from inside the baseline and unaccountably put it into the net.

Once he had also let slip an early break of serve in the final set, Nadal’s lack of confidence, born from injury, a long sequence without a title, and doubts about his future, began to reveal itself. He retreated more often into what he knew best — the style in which he contains his opponent’s attacks from several feet behind the baseline, relying on mobility, tenacity, and winners hit with various speeds from counter-hitting positions.

Kim Clijsters.-

But on hard courts that can be a risky ploy against so fine a striker of the ball as Davydenko, who had the ability to fashion quick winners from either wing and to apply a finishing volley confidently when required. He had after all won the last four of their previous meetings on this surface.

By the second-half of the final set Davydenko was more often dominating the rallies and after two hours and 43 minutes of battling it no longer seemed a surprise when his turn-around was complete. “I was just fighting. I never thought about winning. I didn’t think I could win,” claimed Davydenko, though this seemed more like his professional psychology for taking each point as it came along. “For every point I was fighting. And at the end it was just amazing.”

It made the man who has become known as ‘Mr. Invisible’ for having so low a public profile only the second player to beat both Federer and Nadal in the same tournament twice — the other is David Nalbandian of Argentina. It also raised the question, now that he has his 20th title, including the ATP World Tour Masters in London at the end of the 2009 season, whether he can also take away Nadal’s Australian Open title.

“For three sets it’s really interesting,” Davydenko answered, predictably trying to downplay his chances. “There it will be five sets. It’s different conditions — here it’s 18 degrees, cold and there it can be 30 degrees. It ought to be the same but when you get there it always feels different. But I have confidence, so we will see.”

In Brisbane one classic match was all it took for Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin to serve notice that the Belgians are back and looking to dominate women’s tennis.

Clijsters beat her great rival 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (8/6) in the final of the Brisbane International tournament, in a match that both players later described as by far the greatest of their 23 encounters.

All the more remarkable was that Clijsters was playing only her fifth tournament since making a comeback to the sport, and Henin was playing her first after deciding to end her 20-month retirement.

Clijsters said it would not be long before both Belgians would be back among the sport’s elite. “I think with the level that we both played today, I think we are both capable of getting back into the top 10 and I think it won’t take long for Justine to have a crack at that,” Clijsters said following her win. “The level was so high. It’s fun to play in a big match when you are both playing good tennis and that’s what it’s all about.”

The 26-year-old Clijsters said that in the past she had often been overwhelmed by the occasion when playing Henin, and her tennis had suffered as a result. “That’s something that really bothered me in the previous meetings against her — that I wasn’t always able to play my best tennis — and that’s something today that I feel I definitely improved, and that to me is the most positive thing to come out of this match,” she said. “I hope there will be many more and I think we set the bar very high for the rest of the year.”