• What the Deuce

Beware the dangermen

Jo Carter May 3, 2011
Nikolay Davydenko was delighted with his new BMW © Getty Images
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There was a nice alliterative ring to last week's champions on the ATP Tour as Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko claimed titles across Europe.

After disappointing 2010s, the trio would have been described as darkhorses at the start of the season, yet all three could disrupt dealings in the coming months.

Rewind 17 months to the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals in London, where Davydenko downed Del Potro in the final. Both were major forces in men's tennis - it was Davydenko's fifth title of the year, while US Open champion Del Potro was the first man to beat Roger Federer at Flushing Meadows in six years.

But for all three men, 2010 was a lean year. Three titles between them all season; they already have eight under their belts before the halfway mark in 2011.

With five titles and an astonishing unbeaten start to the season, 2011 has undoubtedly belonged to Djokovic. We eagerly await Djokovic's first meeting with Nadal on the clay; having beaten the world No. 1 twice on hard courts this season, the next result will show just how strong Djokovic has become.

Despite brief forays at the No. 2 spot, Djokovic, like Andy Murray has had to be content to be one of the 'big four', though with little chance of becoming world No. 1, having the misfortune of playing in the same era as two of the greatest players to ever grace a tennis court - Nadal and Roger Federer.

Few would have predicted it at the start of the year, but Djokovic has Nadal in his sights and many believe that the Serb is the No. 1 in waiting. What is the secret recipe to Djokovic's success? One part improved fitness added to two parts better service technique, mixed with a generous sprinkling of confidence, perhaps?

But there is no secret to the resurgence of either Del Potro or Davyenko after both were struck down by serious wrist injuries last season.

Having missed three months of the season last year, Davydenko returned in time for Wimbledon, but crashed out in the second round. Eight tournaments into his comeback he eventually managed to string back-to-back wins together, but failed to progress past the quarter-finals.

When he kicked off the new season with a final appearance in Doha, it looked like perhaps the Russian would put nine months of struggles behind him. But having dropped outside the world's top 40, Davydenko's results since then had been less than eye-catching.

Novak Djokovic has been unbeaten in 2011 © Getty Images
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After crashing out of the Australian Open in the first round at the hands of Florian Mayer, Davydenko went on a three-match losing streak and won just twice in nine matches. But as so often seems to happen in tennis, Davydenko's luck came full circle, beating none other than Mayer to claim his first title in nearly 16 months in Munich.

While Davydenko could just as easily slip back into obscurity with another poor run of form, victory in Munich could be just the boost he needed as he makes his bid to return to the world's top ten - having moved up 12 places to 28th. With ten career titles on clay, Davydenko is no pushover on the dirt, and a solid run of form in the coming weeks could see him joining the likes of Murray and Djokovic in the top ten.

Del Potro's fall and subsequent rise has been eminently more dramatic. After a ten-month layoff, the lanky Argentine slumped as low as 485th in the world rankings but after a shaky couple of appearances at the back end of 2010, really began to hit his stride in the New Year. A hard-fought three-set win over Feliciano Lopez in Sydney showed he had regained some of his fitness, and semi-final appearances in San Jose and Memphis showed signs of a solid base.

Del Potro then claimed his first title in nearly 18 months with victory at Delray Beach, and the real gauge of his progress was a semi-final run at Indian Wells where he gave a good account of himself in a 6-4 6-4 defeat to top seed Nadal. Wins over the likes of Robin Soderling (twice) and Fernando Verdasco suggest he is getting closer, and a rankings rise to No. 32 reflects that progress.

While the current form and confidence of Djokovic is streets ahead of Delpo and Davydenko, their respective titles at the weekend suggest they are all capable of making headlines at the French Open.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk