As the sun sets on the career of the clay court champion who never was, David Ferrer saw tributes from far and wide, including from his biggest competitors: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and perhaps none more touching than his biggest rival, Rafael Nadal, who said that Ferrer was "always a tough opponent. Even though I lead the head to head meetings, our matches were so tough."
Only two days ago, the cream of the ATP crop honoured Ferrer at a ceremony ahead of the Madrid Open, and fans and players alike lauded the clay court great who was denied his Roland Garros title by Nadal in 2013. Nadal was rather emotional as he spoke at the ceremony honouring Ferrer, and the standing ovation the 37-year-old Ferrer received as he walked off court after the ceremony showed that everyone else was also equally emotional.
Two weeks ago, Nadal put paid to Ferrer's clay hopes at the Barcelona Open, ousting him in a quick 6-3, 6-3 contest to make the quarter-finals. While that scoreline might seem one-sided to many, the truth is that there are few players who have displayed Ferrer's level of consistency. A determined, scrappy hitter, Ferrer rarely, if ever, saw the severe dips and highs that so many of his peers then, and now, have faced. Peaking to No 3 in the singles, Ferrer has only been prevented from more clay court glory by Nadal, whom he has faced a staggering 22 times on the soil — winning only twice.
At Roland Garros, however, Ferrer consistently went deep into the tournament over a staggering 10 years. Making his first quarter-final there in 2005. The Spaniard reached semi-finals at every major except Wimbledon over the course of his career. Ferrer had a staggering 27 titles over the course of his career, one of them the trophy at the Paris Masters in 2012. A staggering thirteen of his 27 titles have been on clay — and eight of his finals losses on that surface were courtesy, you guessed it, Nadal — including the French Open final of 2013.
Barring the pair's meeting at Round 3 in Barcelona, each of their meetings has been past the quarter-finals, showing just how consistent Ferrer has been. Early exits have never been a trademark of the Spaniard's career. He's also 12th overall on the list for most number of match wins in the open era.
Indeed, Ferrer, who stands at 5'9" is not the tallest of players, nor does he produce singularly powerful shots that could all but decimate an opponent. Instead, Ferrer has always used wily, well-crafted shots to ensure his opponents are forced to move across court, and surprise them. And that takes consistent movement and strong footwork — both of which involve a significant level of fitness, one that Ferrer has maintained consistently now for nearly two decades on the professional circuit. Fairly early in his career, Ferrer outwitted perhaps one of the best returners in the game — former World No 1 Andre Agassi — and now, 16 years later, even though he sits lower in the rankings, and his career is drawing to a close, the 37-year-old is still doing just that. Now, instead, it is Ferrer's name that is brought up as being one of the greatest returners in men's tennis.
Interestingly, Ferrer leads his head-to-head record against any other clay court specialist not named Nadal. Up 14-7 against Fernando Verdasco overall (6-4 on clay), he leads another famous countryman, Feliciano Lopez, 7-3 on the soil. All these men, too, have led their own country to glory together — Lopez, Verdasco, Ferrer and Nadal together formed the Spanish Davis Cup team that won 3 titles between 2008 and 2012. Together and individually , the men formed the glory days of tennis for Spain. But for Ferrer, it still remained a case of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" — and for years, he has been described as the greatest clay court player to never win a French Open — a title that, until 2016, was held by Djokovic.
Ferrer, too, has earned glories across different levels. Apart from his titles on the Tour, Ferrer paired with Lopez for Olympic bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, and his hard-court prowess is not to be blinked at either. For someone who is not considered to have particularly powerful serves, his twelve titles on that surface certainly belie a man who had only one other man — his friend — in his way.
But for all their rivalry, and indeed the "so near, yet so far" obstacle that Nadal has caused Ferrer, the older player holds no grudges, nor any resentment against the greatest clay-courter of all time.
"Not winning a Grand Slam, with the longevity I had, is surprising. But there is also a good side. Seeing Rafa Nadal grow, his evolution, Federer, Djokovic... They made me better. They made me have more ambition every week. I also coincided with players of another generation and that was different. I did not have that ambition. I was world No 3 thanks to the competitiveness I had with them," Ferrer said.
Indeed, Ferrer's career has come full circle. From playing Agassi early on in his career to now, facing off against players who had not even been born when he first became a professional, Ferrer has really transcended two tennis-watching generations — one that saw him in the prime of his form, and another that has watched his consistency, his determination, his drive.
Today, he takes on Roberto Bautista Agut for what is to be the final tournament of his career — and perhaps his final match on tour. But as Ferrer walks onto the court one last time, one thing must be remembered: twenty years as a tennis professional is one thing; maintaining a high-level of tennis for twenty years of playing career is another thing entirely. And for Ferrer, that determination is perhaps his biggest victory.
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Updated Date: May 07, 2019 17:52:31 IST