David Ferrer is a (fucking) Warrior

22 Jan

Ferrer

“I tried to fight every point, every game. I know all players in important moments are nervous. I try to do my best. Today I was close to losing. But finally I came back. I always try to do my best, to fight a lot. If I am to lose, I would like to lose fighting. I never give up.”

–David Ferrer, Spanish tennis professional and world’s fifth-ranked player, after overcoming a two-set deficit to defeat Nicolas Almagro in the quarter-finals of the 2013 Australian Open

Last night, I did something stupid: I predicted that David Ferrer – the fifth-ranked professional tennis player in the world – would lose to someone outside of the top four.

To be fair, when I made my misguided forecast, Ferrer was down a set and a break to his Spanish counterpart, Nicolas Almagro, a prodigious talent looking to break thru to his first major semi-final. Ferrer would subsequently drop the second set and go down an early break in the third. It looked as though he was toast.

Until he wasn’t.

The workmanlike Spaniard from Valencia clawed his way back into the match, edging Almagro 7-5 in the third, before capturing the fourth set in a tie-breaker.

From there, Almagro’s spirits dimmed. It seemed as though he knew his fate was sealed. The 27-year-old from Murcia, Spain, held an 0-12 life-time record against Ferrer heading into the match, and it seemed as good as done that loss number thirteen was well on the way.

And, it was: Ferrer cruised to a 6-2 fifth-set victory, advancing to his second Australian Open semi-final, where he will take on world number one Novak Djokovic, of Serbia.

At 5’9”, 160lbs, Ferrer is much smaller than most of his opponents on the ATP Tour. Whereas other players can use size, power, and raw talent to win matches, Ferrer has to earn every point. He doesn’t blast aces. He won’t blow you off the court with his ground strokes. And his volleys, while solid, are nothing to write home about.

Instead, Ferrer draws on ruthless efficiency to squeeze every drop of effectiveness out of his modest frame. He isn’t the best mover, but he anticipates as well as anybody in the game. He doesn’t have the most penetrating strokes, but he rarely misses and seldom gives opponents a ball they can attack.

Ferrer is also mind-blowingly patient, willing to stay on the court as long as it takes to get the win. Being in near-perfect physical condition allows the Spaniard to grind his opponents into the dust, brutalizing them physically and demoralizing them emotionally. He’s like that annoying kid who used to study just a little bit harder than everyone else, or stay at practice longer than the other players to get his technique just right; he’s the one you wanted to hate, but couldn’t help but respect.

Ferrer’s persistence manifests itself at the micro-level of individual points, as well. He is content to hit the same shot over and over as many times as needed to win points. The Valencian simply refuses to attempt shots that are needlessly risky, even if that necessitates him hitting 37 consecutive top-spin forehands twelve inches over the net to coax a short ball that he can put away, or induce, finally, an error from his opponent.

Ferrer has used the merits of patience, persistence, and rock-solid mental strength to reach the upper echelon of the men’s game. He has made it to the semi-finals of every major tournament, except at Wimbledon, where he’s advanced to the quarters, and climbed as high as number four in the world rankings. The Spaniard seldom loses to players ranked below him, using grit and raw determination to propel himself to victory, even when facing the steepest of deficits, as he did last night against Almagro. He’s starred for Spain in Davis Cup play, and qualified for six consecutive year-end ATP World Tour finals, in which only the top-eight ranked players secure births.

By most accounts, Ferrer’s had an outstanding career, and, in another era, the Valencia native may well have reached number one, collected a major title or three, and booked a spot in the tennis hall of fame. However, he has come of age in almost exactly the wrong moment, in an era when men’s tennis is controlled by three of the best players in history, and a fourth who is quickly staking his claim to such an accolade.

Indeed, against the “fab four” who dominate today’s men’s game – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – Ferrer has failed time after time to break thru. And, even when he has scored a victory over one of these titans – as he did against Nadal in the fourth-round of the 2007 U.S. Open and in the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2011, or against Murray in the quarters of last year’s French Open – it has not proven enough to win the top prize.

That’s because, today, winning major tournaments in men’s tennis requires beating not just one, but two, or even three, of the heavyweights. That is, even if you slay Nadal, you might have to turn around two days later and duke it out with Djoko. Or, if you take down Fed, you’ll still have to come back in 48 hours to beat Murray – and then maybe come up against Nadal in the final.

This dynamic has prevented a number of immensely talented contemporary tennis players from claiming tennis’ top prizes. (Indeed, outside of the Fab Four, only Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro has won a major tournament for more than half a decade. That’s an extraordinary fact, and one that deserves deeper exploration in a separate post.) But, perhaps no one has suffered more – in the form of foregone titles, a top-three ranking, and, perhaps, a spot in the tennis hall of fame – than David Ferrer.

The Herculean effort he would have to produce to win a major title seems to wear on Ferrer in moments of opportunity against the top cut. Indeed, I’ve watched a number of matches where the Spaniard had one of the Fab Four on the ropes, up a set-point or threatening to break deep in the final set, only to fold and squander another opportunity to make a break-thru. What happens?

Interestingly, in these moments, Ferrer cracks. He seems to revert to the form of the lesser players he so consistently dismisses, spraying shots that he would routinely make against anyone else, and missing balls so easy that he could normally execute them with his eyes closed. Perhaps this is more a reflection of the pressure that the top four put on other players to produce unearthly tennis than it is a knock against Ferrer’s poise; but it is odd that the robotic Spaniard, so seemingly impervious to the nerves that affect other tennis professionals, suddenly becomes impatient and emotionally unsteady when he has a chance to step into the big-time.

Still, Ferrer’s confounding inability to come up with the goods in moments of consequence goes precisely to the essence of what makes the Spaniard so damn compelling. Like a glutton for pain, he keeps coming back for more punishment, undeterred by prior failings and more determined than ever to get the job done. Ferrer’s determination will be on display Wednesday night, when he takes on top-ranked Djokovic in the Australian Open semi-final, with a trip to his first major final on the line.

For personal reasons, I hope Ferrer wins. I am a Federer disciple, and think that the Swiss, who is currently in the quarters Down Under, would have a better chance of beating Ferrer than Djoko in the final. But a Ferrer win would also represent a triumph for everything we should celebrate in sport and, frankly, in life, signaling, as it would, that noble values like hard work, persistence, and drive can, eventually, pay off, no matter how many times one has failed in the past.

In fact, a Ferrer triumph in Melbourne, and the validation of his admirable merits such a victory would symbolize, could portend lessons that span beyond tennis. What if politicians and business leaders became convinced that adopting a Ferrerian approach led to success in their fields? What if the titans of finance learned to play a little nicer? And what if struggling students, teachers, and parents adopted the Spaniard’s workmanlike mentality and unceasing drive to thrive?

I’m not saying David Ferrer’s example could serve as a panacea for our world’s many troubles. But I am saying he is a warrior. And his success on the tennis court would represent a good thing for people both within and beyond the game.

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