A Farewell Hymn to David Ferrer, Unsung Hero of the Big Four Era

David Ferrer never stops moving.

He paces. He bounces. He hurls himself at an opponent’s serve. He sprints. He swats a shot with all the power he can muster. He pivots and hits again. And again. And again. When at last a point ends — more often than not over the years in his favor — he slows down. And returns to pacing, back and forth, back and forth.

Nicknamed the Energizer Bunny, the Little Beast, the Wall, and “Ferru,” 36-year-old Ferrer is renowned on the men’s professional tennis tour for his tenacity, his stamina, his competitive intensity, and his work ethic.

Over the course of his 18-year professional career, Ferrer has earned 27 tour-level singles titles, including a prestigious Masters 1000 level trophy (in 2012, indoors, at Paris – Bercy).  He reached the quarterfinals or better at all four Majors, reached the semifinals at three (not Wimbledon), and reached the final of the 2013 French Open (losing to countryman and “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal). From the beginning of 2012 through mid-2014, he reached the quarterfinals or better at ten consecutive Majors.

Ferrer is the most decorated man playing entirely in the Open Era (1968 – present) never to have won a Major title.

He spent 15 years in the ATP Top 100 and over five-and-a-half years in the Top 10.  He qualified five times among the Top 8 for the year-end World Tour Finals.  In 2013, he finished the year ranked #3 behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (and ahead of Roger Federer).

All of this he has achieved in the “Big Four Era,” the most competitive period in the history of men’s tennis.

Against the Big Four, Ferrer has notched 17 wins: he is 5-16 against Novak Djokovic, 6-14 against Andy Murray, and 6-24 against Rafael Nadal.  The only member of the Big Four against whom he is winless (in 17 tries) is Roger Federer.

Since he has never managed to beat Federer, some tennis writers are at times tempted to downgrade Ferrer in favor of other Big Four Era also-rans, such as big hitters Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, both of whom have wins over Federer at Majors.

In terms of overall career stats, Ferrer ranks well above both Tsonga (16 singles titles, two Masters 1000 titles, one Major final) and Berdych (13 singles titles, one Masters 1000 title, one Major final).

Why might Ferrer, for all of his success, have been unable even once to solve the puzzle of Roger Federer, while the less accomplished Tsonga and Berdych have managed six wins over Federer apiece?

The answers are simple: height, and the advantage height confers in shot power and court coverage.

Federer is 6’1″. Tsonga is 6’2″. Berdych is 6’5″.

Ferrer is only 5’9″.

In spite of Ferrer’s tremendous skills and dogged determination, Federer was an unfortunate match-up for Ferrer.

 (With 6’8″ Jerzy Janowicz after the 2012 Paris-Bercy final.)

How Ferrer has been able to create such a wildly successful tennis style with his limited stature is a classic story of optimization. Lacking in power, Ferrer specialized in pinpoint accuracy.  Ferrer could place his forehand anywhere in the court on a dime. He compensated for his relatively soft service delivery by befuddling his opponents with serve placement.

Lacking the wingspan to prevail consistently at the net, Ferrer instead wore his opponents down with a tactically sound baseline game.  Groundstroke after groundstroke flew from Ferrer’s racquet to locations over the net that made his opponents uncomfortable.  Compensating for his lack of reach with lightning footspeed, Ferrer ran down every ball, sent shots back to awkward locations, and — at times through lengthy and arduous battles — wore his opponents down.

Ferrer also excelled at reading and returning his opponents’ serves – a talent that bought him great advantages against the 6’5″ and taller “servebot” players he encountered with increasing frequency late in his career.

One of the best matches I ever saw him play was a win over 6’10” American John Isner on the fast, dry clay in Madrid. Again and again, Ferrer launched himself at Isner’s fast, high-bouncing serves, often making contact with the ball while airborne himself, and nearly always getting the ball back into play.

 (With John Isner in Madrid.)

Another of Ferrer’s trademark skills is his uncanny ability to break an opponent’s serve when his opponent is serving for a set.  (Among some of his fans, earning a crucial set-saving service break is known as “pulling a Ferrer.”)

 (Meme created by @bellezavitale)

Ferrer’s most ardent fans might disagree on this point, but for me the match that best exemplified Ferrer’s dogged fight and determination was the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal against hard-serving countryman Nicolas Almagro. After winning the first two sets 6-4 6-4, Almagro served for the match three times.  Each time, Ferrer managed to break.  Ferrer eked out the third set 7-5 and the fourth set in a tiebreak before he crushed Almagro’s spirit and cruised to a 6-2 win in the fifth.

Even after a signature win such as that one, he never bragged. Reserved, soft-spoken, and thoughtful, Ferrer, who early in his career described himself as “the worst player in the Top 100,” remains to this day humble and unassuming (in spite of a very respectable $30 million career prize money total). He lives in Valencia in his home country of Spain rather than in a tax haven.  He is close to his family and loyal to his friends.

Ferrer played for Spain at three Olympics — 2008, 2012, and 2016 — coming closest to a medal (heartbreakingly close) in the 2012 doubles competition, when he and partner Feliciano Lopez finished fourth.

 (With Feliciano Lopez.)

He loves playing for his country. He has said that early in his career he would have handed out water bottles just to have a chance to participate in Davis Cup.  By his own reckoning (as reported in several interviews), his best and most important performances have come in that team competition.

In 2008, he helped Spain to its third Davis Cup trophy (a/k/a “salad bowl”) in nine years.

In 2009, he came back from two sets down to defeat the tricky and unpredictable Radek Stepanek in the final as Spain won its fourth trophy in ten years.

In 2011, he played what he himself calls the best match of his career in a five-set win over 6’5″ Argentine rocket-launcher Juan Martin del Potro. The match was a dogfight.  Ferrer was so often behind on his serve that one of the U.S. commentators quipped, “to save time, Ferrer should begin every service game 0-15.”  In the end, Ferrer’s defense and stamina prevailed over del Potro’s power, helping Spain to another Davis Cup trophy.

In 2012, with Rafael Nadal sidelined with knee injuries and Ferrer playing some of the best tennis of his career, Ferrer led Spain’s Davis Cup team to the final against the Czech Republic, where he did all he could for the team by winning both of his singles matches, in front of a hostile crowd, over Berdych and Stepanek.

Perhaps it is fitting in light of Ferrer’s many years as a Davis Cup star that his last great performance delivered a crucial point for Spain in this years Davis Cup quarterfinals.

Ferrer arrived at the tie, held on a clay court in the bullring in his hometown of Valencia, riding a years-long decline in form.  After a decade without what he termed “important injuries,” Ferrer started suffering pain in his Achilles tendons in 2015. Recovery time away from the tour cost him shot precision and endurance.  The consistency that had been the hallmark of his game left him, sapping his confidence. No longer able to rely on his groundstrokes and the accuracy of his serves, Ferrer saw his form and ranking decline.

Notwithstanding those set-backs, Ferrer never lost his love for tennis or his desire to compete.  He even won a title in the summer of 2017 on the claycourts of Båstad, Sweden.

By the time of the Germany/Spain Davis Cup tie in April of 2018, Ferrer had recovered his game sufficiently to play for the Spanish team in his hometown and in front of his family, his wife, and his friends.

 (“The Armada” in Valencia.)

“The Armada,” as the Spanish team calls itself, was the oldest team contesting this year’s Davis Cup quarterfinals.  Its opponent, Germany, fielded the youngest.  Throughout the weekend, Germany’s youngsters pushed Spain to the brink.

Rafael Nadal delivered wins in his two singles matches, as was expected (or at least hoped, given his winter injury struggles) of the “King of Clay.” Ferrer lost his first singles match to 6’6″, World #3 Alexander Zverev.  The doubles match — crucial to many Davis Cup ties — was a nail-biter, lasting five sets and eventually going to the plucky German pair.  The outcome of the tie was to be decided by a contest between Germany’s veteran, 34-year-old Philipp Kohlschreiber, and the 36-year-old Ferrer.

Over five hours and seven minutes, Kohlschreiber and Ferrer scrapped and battled. More than once, Kohlschreiber appeared to have the match in hand, only to have Ferrer seize the initiative by (as is his wont) breaking when Kohlschreiber attempted to serve for a set.

On the match point, after Ferrer hit his final blistering, crosscourt backhand, he stood and waited, unsure whether his shot had landed in.  After Kohlschreiber had viewed the ball mark and slumped in resignation, Ferrer collapsed to the ground in relief.  Hero of the weekend, Ferrer had ensured that his team would play this coming September in another Davis Cup semifinal.

That valiant and emotional victory will stand as one of the last, if not the last, of Ferrer’s landmark wins.

In the weeks after his Davis Cup triumph, Ferrer withdrew of four tournaments in order to be home with his wife, Marta, when his son, Leo, was born.  When he finally returned to competition in May, Ferrer was a shadow of his best.  He has since won a few matches but never two in a row. Ferrer admits today that the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion of having a new baby has worn him down.  He no longer has either the physical consistency or the mental focus crucial to the success of his game.

Ferrer has realized that “this journey of [his] life is coming to an end.”

In July, he announced his plans to retire. He said he would play the North American summer hard court events.  For the rest of 2018 and the start of 2019, he plans to play events if he is invited to. He hopes to retire at home in the spring on clay, in either Barcelona or Madrid.

This week, for the first time since 2003, Ferrer has dropped out of the Top 100. He arrives at the U.S. Open eager to play (declaring that he “loves tennis”) but far below his best.  He plays for the joy of it now, even though at times his Achilles tendons hurt so much that he can barely walk down stairs.  With Marta and Leo at his side, he says he plans to “live” the U.S. Open as his last Major.

 (Posted by David Ferrer.)

He will walk onto court for his first-round match on Monday night against teammate, rival, friend  — and World #1, and defending U.S. Open champion! — Rafael Nadal. On paper, Nadal is a terrible draw for Ferrer, but Ferrer says he views the match as “a gift.”  Facing Nadal enables him to play what may well be his last U.S. Open match in tennis’ biggest arena, Arthur Ashe Stadium.

When Nadal and Ferrer last met at the U.S. Open — in the 2007 Round of 16 — Ferrer prevailed in four hard-fought sets.  Ferrer is not as strong a player today as he was then, and Nadal for his part has improved. Although it is possible the Ferrer will beat Nadal on Monday — he has, after all, beaten Nadal six times — the most likely ending will see Ferrer waving good-bye to the crowd as he exits the court for the last time.

Ferrer reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals three times and the semifinals twice. As the Ashe night session crowd watches what may be his final effort at a Major, I hope they remember his shining moments in Flushing Meadows.

– His 2007 victory over then-#2 Nadal, which helped propel Ferrer to a Top-8 finish for the year.

– His riveting win over Janko Tipsarevic in the 2012 quarterfinals, which came down to a fifth-set tiebreak.

– The first-set of his 2012 semifinal against Novak Djokovic, in which Ferrer adapted beautifully to windy conditions while Djokovic struggled.  (The match was called because of a threatened storm, which never materialized. When the pair resumed play on the following day in still conditions, Djokovic won.  Had the match continued in the wind, Ferrer might well have prevailed.  This was certainly the closest Ferrer came to a U.S. Open final. It might have been his closest brush with a Major title.)

– His 2013 rematch against Janko Tipsarevic in the Round of 16, which Ferrer won in four sets, and in which Ferrer characteristically broke serve at least once while his opponent was serving for a set.

I hope the crowd on Monday night bestows upon Ferrer the respect and admiration he deserves. Ferrer always gave his all and fought until the last ball had bounced twice.

Ferrer’s career ranks him among the sport’s all-time best, possibly (as some fans suggest) meriting a place one day in the Tennis Hall of Fame.

The ATP World Tour will be much poorer without Ferrer’s fight, his heart, his humility, his work ethic, and his soft-spoken wisdom.

Adiós, Ferru.

And thank you.

 

The best Ferrer highlight reel I have seen.

 

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