By Bill Simons
We like heroes.
No, we adore heroes.
Check that, we need heroes. We need to see them up close, know their foibles, and celebrate their triumphs.
And these days, men’s tennis has given us heroes in abundance.
There’s the graceful one from Switzerland—Federer’s the name—that seems to float across courts. There’s the charismatic Mediterranean, the humble one from Spain, whose muscles have muscles and whose grin melts hearts.
There’s the Serbian boy who survived war to become No. 1, and that Scottish lad—Murray’s the man—who carries his nation’s hopes and produces historic wins.
So why, then, was David Ferrer, such a humble warrior, in the French Open final?
He’s small—just 5’ 9”.
Ferrer’s back story is modest. He didn’t emerge out of a ghetto, or play in a pool in winter, or practice as bombs fell. Instead, his coach locked him in a shed when he wasn’t producing as a kid, and he didn’t get to travel to foreign lands—an exercise that, for a junior player, borders on child abuse.
He was just David Ferrer, another dutiful member of the Spanish Armada, another baseliner deep in the shadow of Rafa the Mighty, without intimidating muscles, glistening results, or even exotic tattoos or quirky charisma to draw our curiosity.
Last summer, Ferrer again began to knock on the door of tennis’ big four, reaching the US Open semis. He finally won a Masters tournament in the fall (although he’d played in more Masters than any other first-time winner), and almost took another in Miami this spring. Here in Paris, he at last reached a Slam final (and again, only Goran Ivanisivic had played more Slams than Ferrer before reaching one).
Clearly, Ferrer was improving, but he remained the victim of a certain Rodney Dangerfield ”No Respect” mindset. One dismissive pundit suggested that Ferrer should be ranked No. 203 in the Open era, and Maria Sharapova said Serena served faster then he did. Ouch! Going into the French Open final, some felt that a Ferrer victory over Nadal would be the greatest upset in Grand Slam history.
Still, experts searched for reasons the match might be competitive. Ferrer was a bit higher-ranked than Rafa, and had recently won sets off of his friend in both Madrid and Rome. Maybe Rafa, who had played six more hours then Ferrer, was a bit tired. Plus, Nadal went through a fairly grinding season and had actually dropped sets in two different French Open matches, while Ferrer hadn’t dropped any, including a stunning win over Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semis. Ferrer may have been on a nine-match losing streak against top five players, but that didn’t stop Rafa, the most humble (or tactical?) star in sports, from saying he was not the favorite. Never mind that he had beaten Ferrer 16 straight times on clay.
The match itself produced few shocks. Nadal—the bigger, stronger Spaniard, with his wide-ranging arsenal, fortress defense, and a world of experience —was not at his best out of the gate. He donated errors and was broken early in the first set. But then he broke Ferrer three times to secure the opener, 6-3.
Ferrer, too, was shaky at first, then he rallied, only to dip again at the end of the first. Some may dismiss Ferrer as a bland craftsman. But oddly wild and crazy things happen at his matches: there was a hole on the Louis Armstrong Stadiium court at the US Open in 2011, and he faced crazy weather last year in New York. A popular YouTube video shows him knocking a ball into the stands to silence a crying baby at a 2011 tournament. There was another hole in a court during a match of his in Doha, patriotic singing during his French semi this year, and now, at the French final, two intense anti-gay marriage protests—pink flair, shock impact—which frightened Nadal and stunned the throng.
But it was Nadal who had the real flair on this day. He broke early in the second set to reach that special comfort zone in any tennis match: up a set and a break.
Still, Ferrer—despite dreary slow conditions, heavy balls, and heavier topspin forehand missiles from his foe—soldiered on. Down 1-3, he stepped up, took risks, and—with the crowd at last chanting “David, David”—fought to get four break points in the pivotal fifth game.
But Nadal is a great match player. He raises his level at crunch time, calls on his defense-to-offense skills, controls the middle of the court, dominates with his forehand, finds openings, and is tough-as-nails at the end of sets (true for the most part against Novak Djokovic in the semis) and on break points (as in the last, 29-stroke point in the fourth game of the final’s second set).
Nadal was not toying with Ferrer in this final. Still, for all of Ferrer’s tenacity, this was a mismatch. A superb middleweight against the heavyweight champion of clay. Rafa’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory secured him a 59-1 record at Roland Garros and gained him an eighth French title, which is more at any one Slam than any other player in the Open Era. Incredible, especially since he was off the circuit for seven months with a wretched knee injury. Rafa wouldn’t say whether this was the greatest win of his career—they are all special—but he confided, “[I am] very happy, very emotional, very important victory for me … after the comeback of the injury … Five months ago, nobody of my team dreamed about one comeback like this, because we thought that going to be impossible.”
IT then asked Rafa about his doubts and low moments when he was off the tour.
He replied, “I am a positive guy … But the doubts are part of this life.The persons who don’t have doubts is because they are so arrogant…Doubts are in everything. Nothing is clear in this world.
So I for sure have doubts, but I work as much as I can to be here … [and] I am still working with the positive attitude and with the right mentality … [My] motivation comes from my love, my passion for this sport. I really need to have fun in what I do. I really love that. There are more important things than sport, but sport is a big part of my life … That makes my life … fighting in very special situations like on the central court here at Roland Garros, the US Open, Monte Carlo … These are things I was watching on TV when I was a kid. I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I hope I can make it on such a court.’ My dream became reality.’
What is also a reality is that Nadal—just 27 and in mid-career—already has won 12 Slams. He has equaled Roy Emerson’s total and only Sampras (with 14) and Federer (with 17) have more. Clearly, he has a shot to be the best ever.
But just as Rafa said he should not be favored in the final against Ferrer, his uncle and mentor Toni of course bristled at the thought of calling him the best of all time. Although, amazingly, he conceded that things could change.
“No, no, the greatest player [is] Federer and Rod Laver, not Rafael,” said Toni. “Rafa is not in this [league]. But he played in a system where the most surfaces are hard courts, and he is the only specialist on clay who has won four Grand Slam titles.” When asked, “Would you ever say Rafa is the greatest?” Toni replied, “No—well, when you ask me that in five years and he [has] won three more times here and in Wimbledon, I will say Rafa is the best.”
After Rafa’s latest master class at Roland Garros, you know we will be watching.