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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

With Safin Out, Russia Looks to Davydenko

ReutersRussia's Davydenko returning against Frenchman Richard Gasquet during July's Davis Cup quarterfinal in Moscow.
Its top player injured and its 2002 Davis Cup hero out of form, Russia is pinning its hopes of reaching this year's final on Nikolai Davydenko, a shy 24-year-old from a mining town in Ukraine.

Davydenko, the inspiration behind Russia's impressive comeback in July's quarterfinal against France, is being counted on to produce a repeat of his heroics when the team faces formidable Croatia in the world group semifinals this week.

With Australian Open champion Marat Safin still not fully recovered from a ligament tear in his left knee and Mikhail Youzhny struggling to regain his 2002 form, the onus is on the Ukrainian-born and German-based Davydenko to lead the team.

"He's been on the team for just a couple of years but has already established himself as an integral part of it," Russia captain Shamil Tarpishchev said of the team's unsung hero.

"Davydenko saved the day for us in the quarterfinals against France and, with Safin still missing, we're definitely counting on him to lead us once again against the Croatians."

Local boy Mario Ancic, however, says form and statistics will count for nothing when the tie gets under way on Friday.

"I am very well prepared, I'm in good physical shape," Ancic told reporters in the Gripe Sports Hall, just a short stroll from his family home. "There will be a great atmosphere, it will be a great feeling and we don't want to waste it."

Ljubicic, the team's most experienced player, added: "All the singles will be very close. Davydenko is a dangerous player, but the surface is not his best -- it will suit Youzhny more. Whatever, the tie won't be decided before Sunday."

The 21-year-old Ancic, who was nurtured as a junior by Croatian sporting icon and fellow Split resident, former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, is under pressure after defeats by Andy Roddick and Andrei Pavel during Croatia's Davis Cup victories over the U.S. and Romania this year.

"I lost the opening singles here against Romania in five sets, but I will try to use that experience to my benefit," said Ancic, who partnered Ljubicic to crucial doubles victories in both matches. "I just hope I get the win on Friday."

Davydenko stirred things up when he said Croatia could benefit from home-based line judges.

"[Croatia's] main advantage will be the line officials," Davydenko told reporters, referring to a defeat by Ancic in a lower-tier tournament in Zagreb several years ago when he believed he "was robbed" by poor line calls.

At first, Davydenko, born in the small town of Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, was apprehensive about playing tennis for Russia.

Last year, however, after winning his first Kremlin Cup title in Moscow, he said he felt "like a true Russian."

"I had the chance to acquire German citizenship, but to do that I had to give up my Russian passport," Davydenko said then. "But I've decided to keep my Russian passport and represent Russia for the rest of my tennis career.

"Russian fans have given me such great support, as though I was one of their own. I just can't disappoint them any more. If I'm playing good tennis and stay healthy, Russia can always count on me," he added.

Unlike the telegenic Safin, Davydenko keeps a low profile.

His rise to prominence, culminating at this year's French Open, where he reached his first Grand Slam semifinal, has been a hard slog. Slightly built, Davydenko relies on his shot selection rather than brute force to tame his opponents and has crept quietly up the rankings to become the world No. 7.

Tarpishchev paid tribute to Davydenko's tactical wisdom and his ability to read the game.

"It's his brain among other things that sets him apart from the rest," Tarpishchev said. "He doesn't have Safin's power, [Roger] Federer's finesse nor Roddick's serve, so he must work much harder for every point."

He won his first ATP title in January 2003 in Adelaide and repeated his success at the Estoril Open three months later.

That year, he also made his Davis Cup debut against the Czech Republic in a world group first-round tie in Ostrava.

Stepping in for the injured Safin, Davydenko beat Radek Stepanek in the decider to clinch a 3-2 win for Russia.

Davydenko took up the challenge once again in this year's quarterfinal against France, leading his adopted country to a dramatic victory despite nursing a painful wrist injury.

He thrashed Paul-Henri Mathieu in straight sets on the opening day to level the best-of-five tie at 1-1, then on the Sunday overwhelmed teenager Richard Gasquet to even the score at 2-2 and set the stage for Igor Andreyev to clinch the tie. The win propelled the Russians into the last four for the first time since 2002, when they secured their first Davis Cup trophy by beating France in the Paris final thanks to an amazing comeback victory by Youzhny.

 Ancic will face Davydenko in the opening singles of Croatia's semifinal against Russia on Friday. Thursday's draw paired Ljubicic with Youzhny.

In Saturday's doubles, Ancic and Ljubicic will take on Youzhny and Dmitry Tursunov.

Ljubicic plays Davydenko in Sunday's first reverse singles, and Ancic and Youzhny will clash in what promises to be a tense finale.