Ferrer may have best chance at Slam breakthrough at U.S. Open
If there was a bright side to the U.S. Open departures of John Isner and Sam Querrey, it's that they'll have a bit more rest leading into the Davis Cup tie in Spain Sept. 14-16. They'll hold down the singles slots for America, while the Spaniards will be without the injured Rafael Nadal.
As long as David Ferrer is around, you wonder if any of it matters. This is a man capable of shouldering any burden -- including the weight of his country's expectations -- without a shrug.
Ferrer got a break when Nadal pulled out of the Open, earning the fourth seed (instead of No. 5) and the leading-man's role in a very favorable quarter. Now he's a victory away from reaching Saturday's semifinals, having dispatched Richard Gasquet on a rainy Tuesday at Louis Armstrong Stadium, 7-5, 7-6 (2), 6-4.
So much can be learned from an athlete's body language, and there were great volumes of information in this fourth-round match. Gasquet looks forever troubled, as if a daunting roadblock is right around the corner. Even his hair looks disturbed. Ferrer's countenance speaks to unwavering belief, a demeanor well fortified by his boundless energy. The fact that he's spent 10 years looking for that first big breakthrough -- a major title -- only magnifies his resolve.
He might be looking at his career-best chance. With Roger Federer and Andy Murray on the other side of the draw, and looking like the two best players at the moment, Ferrer undoubtedly sees a glimmer of light.
And if he doesn't quite get there, he'll be right back in someone's face the next time around.
Considering that Roddick and Michael Chang were able to sneak into the Grand Slam winner's circle, it's downright odd that Ferrer's best results have been semifinals: the 2007 U.S. Open (losing to Novak Djokovic), last year's Australian Open (Murray) and this year's French (Nadal). Victory on the Masters 1000 circuit (think Indian Wells or Madrid) has also eluded him. Surely he takes heart in Federer's late-in-life brilliance, for they were born just eight months apart and share a fierce devotion to the game.
Ferrer has been coached since his teenage years by countryman Javier Piles, and there's a famous story about the 17-year-old Ferrer in a moment of insubordination. Piles, a hard-line disciplinarian, decided to lock Ferrer in a closet, with only bread and a bottle of water, for a spell. They locked horns several times and the kid actually quit tennis at one point, figuring he'd get more satisfaction out of construction work. But he found that he craved that discipline. Now the players call him "Little Beast," a fitting handle for an all-court player who never stops competing.
It was difficult to watch Tuesday's match and not think of Roddick, such a central figure at this U.S. Open and a man whose career often fell short of significant victories. When the Davis Cup came to Austin, Texas -- where Roddick resides -- last year, it seemed almost inevitable that the U.S. would conquer a Spanish team playing without Nadal (taking a post-Wimbledon break). Ferrer comprehensively stole the show, beating Roddick in straight sets and then knocking off Mardy Fish to clinch the tie.
Five years ago at Wimbledon, Gasquet trailed Roddick by two sets and 4-2, only to come all the way back -- the first time he'd ever done so on tour -- and Roddick admitted being haunted by the loss for months. The result seems particularly quirky today, for Gasquet has regrettably established himself as one of the most unstable players on tour.
During Tennis Channel's coverage Tuesday, the analysts took turns dropping reminders about Gasquet's reputation. After just one game, Justin Gimelstob observed that "Gasquet's already rolling his eyes," and he noted shortly thereafter that on a scale of 10, by tour standards, Gasquet's fitness level is "about a 5."
"He's talented," Courier said in the early stages. "But he can flake out, as well."
Gasquet has a superstitious habit of asking for the exact same ball if he wins a particularly stirring point, and Courier found that appalling. "Somebody's going to have to tell him that the magic doesn't come from the ball he's hitting," said Courier. "It comes from his racket. He doesn't
There's no questioning the sublime quality of Gasquet's game, particularly when he's whipping that backhand with a flourish. "Gasquet's single-fisted backhand is a shot of beauty," former tour star Pat Cash noted a few years back. "Technically, I would have no hesitation putting it up there alongside Justine Henin, Stefan Edberg and Cedric Pioline. If I was a junior coach, I would use it as a textbook example of how to execute the shot."
Unfortunately, the Frenchman tends to fold under duress. In a decision he will forever regret, Gasquet pulled out of a Davis Cup match against Roddick in 2008, citing a minor knee injury -- and yet he played a dead rubber against James Blake a couple of hours later. That's when Cash weighed in again: "I'm not alone in thinking he's not the strongest player mentally. In my book, letting your country down in Davis Cup is dereliction of duty. That tells me he isn't a fighter."
If there was a single episode that defined Ferrer's Tuesday performance, it came in the second set, when a 2-5 deficit didn't even register on his scale of concern. Another player might have eased off the accelerator to regroup at that moment; Ferrer stormed all the way back and claimed that set for his own. Gasquet had four set points at 5-4 but couldn't cash in, and the second of those -- when a moment of indecision forced him to awkwardly shank a forehand second-service return -- was particularly costly.
"It felt a little bit inevitable to me," Patrick McEnroe said on ESPN during a rain delay at 2-2 in the third set. "There didn't seem to be a real belief in Gasquet. Ferrer's dogged determination, as much as anything, is winning him this match."
It's the story of his career. To hear Brad Gilbert (and many others) tell it after the match, Ferrer "will need some help" in order to make this tournament his first major victory. "Djokovic or Federer will have to go out," said Gilbert, before Ferrer has to play them. That could very well be true. Whatever happens, the tour's most relentless competitor is a pleasure to watch.