David Ferrer lacks big weapons, big titles, a big physique and a big personality. While he's the fifth-best tennis player in the world, in this era of the Big Four, that renders him dangerously close to journeyman status. But he has, in abundance, what so many crave: respect within his profession. It's honestly won and it's hard-won.
Ferrer, see, is the hardest-working man in tennis. He trains longer and more intensely than anyone else. Players talk about his workouts. How he sprints and runs -- and cools off by jogging. The practice court is his natural habitat. Because of his prep work, during actual matches, he has the capacity to continue laboring. Players know that when they face him, they are in for a struggle; they are in for physical pain; they are in for a battery of questions no other opponent will pose.
Ferrer put in a five-set shift in the Australian Open quarterfinals on Tuesday afternoon. He faced Nicolas Almagro, a countryman and friend. Almagro is younger than Ferrer, more talented, flashier and serves harder. But he lacks Ferrer's industriousness and the confidence it forges. As a result, he brought with him a career head-to-head record of 0-12.
Zinging his one-handed backhand and adding to his tournament-leading ace total, Almagro won the first two sets. But Ferrer wasn't done working. Though fighting through a decidedly "off" day, he continued his labors, playing indefatigable tennis, prolonging rallies and doing it all with no concern that his conditioning would fail him. He stole the third set when Almagro was unable to serve out the match.
He kept fighting in the fourth. When Almagro had two more opportunities to serve out the match, Ferrer was still on the clock. He continued battling, chasing down balls, making Almagro hit innumerable extra balls. As Ferrer put it: "I fight for every point; this is my game." There was, unquestionably, an element of choking here. But Almagro's failure didn't happen in a vacuum. When the guy on the other side of the set is simply unfamiliar with the concept of throttling back -- much less quitting -- it's much easier to get tight.
By the fifth set, we saw the legacy of hard work. Almagro wasn't merely a mental mess; he was injured as well, cramping (see unfortunate photo), complaining about a possible adductor tear. He had been made to suffer. Meanwhile, working until the last point, Ferrer punched his ticket to the semis with a 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win. Vintage Ferrer. Fittingly, it was his 500th career victory. No. 501 will be much tougher, as he'll face Novak Djokovic after the two-time defending champion dispatched Tomas Berdych in four sets. Ferrer is 4-10 against Djokovic, dropping the last four.
"I'm always trying to do my best, to fight a lot," Ferrer said. "If I lose, I would like to lose fighting."
For such a workaholic, Ferrer isn't what you'd call a careerist. He has said repeatedly that he is No. 5 for a reason: The four players ahead of him -- Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal -- are simply better. That may be true. But none have worked harder. None have done more to squeeze every drop of talent out of their games. For that, he has their respect. For that, he deserves ours.
? I think that's a fair point. A lot of mail here, pro and con, and I think the pro-Sharapova camp has a reason to be peeved. Obviously, beating a Williams sister -- even at this stage of Venus' career -- is a big deal. We all know Sharapova's intensity level. We all know how she has struggled with the sisters in the past.
To me, there was something questionable given the context. Beat a guy 12-10 in the fifth set (or after in a nearly six-hour final), as Djokovic did, and it's understandable to rip off your shirt. Beat a guy 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, and it's weird to emote. In this case, Sharapova pounded Venus. The first set was 6-1. The second set was 6-3 and could have been worse. Venus is hitting her mid-30s. She is a seven-time Grand Slam champ who has struggled with illness and is clearly not the player she once was. For all we know, this was her last match in Melbourne. Add all that up, and it seemed a little, well, excessive/discourteous to celebrate so exuberantly. And Venus' reaction -- watch the tape and she stares at Sharapova as if to say, "Really? You didn't just do that, did you?" -- suggests that she was taken aback.
Is this a media-generated "controversy"? Probably to some extent. Is it a big deal? No. Should it obscure Sharapova's lights-out play? No. But I thought it was a bit much given the tenor of the match. And I don't think it showed Venus sufficient respect. That's all.
? After a relative period of, ahem, quiet, we have tons of grunting discussion again. Bojo, as Jovanovski will inevitably be called, had the misfortune of showing off her pipes while playing against an American on ESPN. Now she will be known for something other than this.
As for grunting, the WTA dropped the ball. This should be one of the case studies in crisis (mis)management they teach in PR school. Complaints first fell on deaf ears. ("Thank you for reaching consumer relations. Your opinions mean a lot. Please visit our website or press one for more options.") Then came the defensive response that made no sense and only enraged the consumers: It doesn't bother the players. (This, as players and coaches were complaining.)
Next came a vague policy about the unfairness of muzzling the veterans but trying eliminate noise pollution among the younger generation. (Well, Jovanovski turned 21 on New Year's Eve. She's the younger generation, and it sounds like she's in labor.) I'm told ESPN spent a good chunk of the broadcast and post-match discussing noise. Social media was going nuts.
Women (and men!) make noise when they exercise and exert. No one worries about grunting when putting to save par or rolling a ball down a greased lane. Tennis, though, is real labor. No one wants to muzzle Serena Williams or Nadal or Djokovic when they blast the ball or run into the courtside signage playing defense. But when Jovanovski gets a mid-rally ball, yells as if in labor and then sustains it until the time her opponent swings, yeah, that's the problem.
? Yeah, it's just a question of whether Stephens wants to fire. In the first set Monday, she was aggressive. In the next, set she was passive and in counterpunching mode.
? Yeah, but it's not like they were hitting the ball all that hard. (That was a joke.)
? Neil Malhotra of Palo Alto, Calif: "You mentioned that Andy Murray was the greatest man to not be ranked No. 1. However, Rod Laver was still active when the ATP rankings started in the early 1970s, and he never got past No. 3. A technical point, I know, but it's actually not accurate to say that Murray was the greatest never to be ranked No. 1 while the rankings existed."
? Andrew of New York responds to Owen of the U.K., regarding the GOAT discussion: "Youth doth blind thee. Fernando Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Pete Sampras? Exalt not mere mortals. These contemporaries thou dost hold so dear. Nay. In tennis's pantheon, gods Bill Tilden and Don Budge reign supreme."
? Brian Baker underwent meniscus surgery Monday in Nashville, Tenn., and will be in a knee brace for about six weeks. He posted a photo on his Facebook page.
? Tim Wei of Austin, Texas, has long-lost twins: Djokovic and Odo on