Commentary

Davydenko mentally drained from heightened match-fixing concerns

Nikolay Davydenko quickly has become the poster boy for the match-fixing scandals that have knocked the tennis world off tilt. Now Davydenko, who plays the most grueling schedule of anyone on tour, would do anything to fade back into anonymity.

Originally Published: November 15, 2007
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

SHANGHAI -- Not that long ago, Nikolay Davydenko would wonder why a top player of his talents was routinely being ignored.

Nowadays, Davydenko appears to be pining for the old days of anonymity, the days when his name was typically no more than a score mention, despite his top-five ranking. At least, that was the point that came across while he admitted to feeling mentally drained upon his arrival this week in Shanghai for the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup.

All that flying under the radar went by the wayside for Davydenko in August, when a match he played against then-No. 87 Martin Vassallo Arguello at the Sopot, Poland, tournament came under suspicion. The British online gambling firm Betfair suspended betting on the match when unusually high wagers in favor of Arguello were posted, even after the Argentine lost the first set 6-1. In the end, Davydenko retired from the match in the third set because of a foot injury, an injury that caused him to call for the trainer as early as the first set.

Match-fixing concerns heightened, fueled by the hefty $6.9 million in wagers on the match, which was unlikely to fill a stadium. As the more notable player involved, Davydenko's life became a blur in a sea of innuendo. To much of the public, the fact that officials were investigating the match translated to finger-pointing at Davydenko.

At first, maybe because of naivete or wishful thinking that it all would go away, Davydenko just went about his business. But as he became more and more of a talking point, the Russian, who steadfastly insists he has done nothing wrong, began feeling as if he had been convicted of a crime that he had not even been charged with committing.

Nikolay Davydenko
AP Photo/Bob ChildDavydenko feels as if he is being convicted of a crime he hasn't even been charged with committing.
"Yes, I'm very angry," said Davydenko, struggling to get his point across as best as possible in his jumbled English. "Every week my name is in the paper. It's because it's always if you read something in the press, it's bad news. [It's] something about you, it's always something happening, another player talking, but your name is the first [on the] list … always."

Even ATP president Etienne de Villiers, who, naturally, is talking a hard line against "insider" gambling and match-fixing in the sport, expressed sympathy for Davydenko's plight. While announcing to the media in Shanghai that little-known Alessio Di Mauro was being suspended for nine months for holding an active online betting account -- the Italian was found to have never wagered on his own matches -- de Villiers addressed the Davydenko situation. Taking pains to caution reporters that reputations are at stake, the ATP boss emphasized that someone is "innocent until ever proven guilty."

"I must stress this is not an investigation on Davydenko," De Villiers said. "This is an investigation that is about a match that involves suspect gambling patterns, and we need to try and understand what happened, where the money was placed, by whom, and if there is information from inside, how that information was transmitted. It's our job to connect the dots … it is not investigating Nikolay Davydenko."

A player who preferred to keep things in the family, Davydenko's go-to person always had been his brother, Eduard. But shortly after the brouhaha about the Sopot match began, the introverted Davydenko realized he needed the assistance of a savvy personality capable of navigating tricky, tangled webs. That led to his befriending of Ronnie Leitgeb, the director of the Portschach, Austria, tournament, who started his career as a journalist before going on to coach and manage former French Open champion Thomas Muster's career for 16 years.

The crafty Leitgeb, who came on board in September, definitely has the smarts and the resources to do a competent job of proactively protecting Davydenko. Already, Davydenko was exonerated by the ATP this week in his appeal of a $2,000 fine for "lack of best effort" in his loss to Marin Cilic last month at the St. Petersburg tournament.

"It's a very difficult situation for him, and we have to try to solve the problem," Leitgeb said. "I'm hoping that we can solve this problem by the end of the year so he can start the New Year fresh. The only thing he can say is that he doesn't know anything either and that he doesn't know what is going on and this has nothing to do with him."

Leitgeb, however, is concerned about the mental toll this is taking on Davydenko, who already fries himself by playing one of the more grueling yearly tour schedules. While Davydenko lost his two opening matches this week at the Tennis Masters Cup, which put him out of contention for the semifinals, he still has to get through the Davis Cup final in two weeks in Portland before his year is over.

"It's tiring when you haven't done anything and you always have to defend yourself," Leitgeb said. "I think there were a few mistakes that happened from Betfair that they went public so fast, and I don't think that was in the interest of the ATP. The big loser was Nikolay."

Leitgeb also suggested that if and when the investigation vindicates Davydenko, attorneys will assess just how much this situation has sullied his client's reputation.

"If he is cleared, then we have to talk about damages," Leitgeb said patiently, leaning against a wall outside the interview room at Qi Zhong stadium. "I'm not a lawyer. I can only find him a lawyer, and I found him the best lawyers in Germany. But first, we have to clear him, then we can see what the damage is, but there has been some damage so far."

Alex Metreveli, a Georgian who reached the Wimbledon final in 1973 and now is a color commentator for Russian television, knows Davydenko well and believes that some of his stress is self-inflicted via his penchant for overplaying each season. When asked if he thinks Davydenko is at all involved in the irregular betting that took place on the Sopot match, Metreveli said, "No, no, no, but I don't know, nobody knows. Maybe it's possible, but nobody really knows."

The good news for Davydenko is that fellow players aren't sounding accusatory.

Roger Federer has said repeatedly that he doesn't think there is a gambling problem inside the tour, at least not among the top players.

On Thursday night, when asked what he would do if he were approached to fix a match, No. 3 Novak Djokovic said it's hard to say how he would react. He also said he has no knowledge of anyone on the tour doing anything wrong, saying, "Of course, there were talks about a lot of players getting involved in the bettings. I can't blame anybody. I can't accuse anybody because I'm not sure. Nobody's a hundred percent sure what is happening."

And Andy Roddick's personal policy is to simply have faith in his colleagues.

"The thing about an individual sport is that you just have to trust your fellow player," Roddick said. "You kind of have to trust that everyone's going to play the game in the right way and go about things in the right way."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter, spending much of her year covering tennis around the world.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.