Tommy Haas is momentarily the top story in tennis on the heels of Rafael Nadal’s comeback in winning the Indian Wells title. His semifinal showdown with David Ferrer promises to be an intriguing contrast featuring his all-court skills and talent versus the unrelenting overachiever who continues to improve on his career peak into his early 30s.
Haas recently dominated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the fourth round, and then destroyed baseliner Gilles Simon in the quarterfinals. With a day of rest, there should be little to no fatigue as Haas will be tagged as a favorite to defeat the No. 3 seeded Ferrer on Friday night. He has the bigger serve and backhand, and more ways to dictate offense against the backboard Ferrer.
So how has Ferrer managed to rise near the top of tennis, and how could he be the X factor that could put a dent in Rafael Nadal’s bid for an eighth French Open title?
The Right Time to Succeed
Ferrer is a late bloomer. He will be 31 years old next week, but tennis fans rarely lump him in with Haas, Hewitt, Roddick, Safin and other talented stars who came onto the tour at the dawn of the 21st century. He might not be considered when listing best players of the Open era to never make it to a Grand Slam final, but the numbers are piling up.
He has been on a furious tear in winning 9 titles since 2012, tops on the ATP tour, but is not considered a viable Grand Slam threat. He is like a vulture, buzzing around smaller ATP tournaments feeding off the easier points that are less contended by top players. He won his first Masters 1000 title last year in Paris after a few upsets cleared his path.
Nevertheless, his ironman approach to tennis requires great energy and stamina. He travels around the world on clay and hard courts, all the while running back and forth on tennis baselines as if he was being paid according to velocity per meter.
Ferrer has also succeeded because tennis has evolved into an ideal time to be a baseliner and return specialist. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Ferrer’s first taste of his career high No. 4 ranking came in July 2008, when Nadal and Djokovic helped usher in a new era of baseline bashing and endurance tennis.
There are fewer big servers and all-court players, like Haas, to attack Ferrer’s game. If the match turns into a grinder’s delight where one player has to track down one more shot than the other, Ferrer is your man. He is king of the rabbits, dashing about with his long hair held up by a headband thick enough to double as a dish towel.
Starving for Victories
Ferrer is compact at 5’ 9” and 160 pounds, the same dimensions of 90s star Michael Chang, and not so dissimilar in how they use their legs to earn their bread. They are feisty counter-punchers who adapted their skills to both clay and hard courts.
Not long ago, Ferrer was labeled as a Spanish clay-court specialist, but has actually capitalized more efficiently on winning hard courts titles. He has eight titles in 12 finals appearances, and four semifinal appearances at hard courts Grand Slams. In contrast, he has won 10 of 22 clay-court titles appearances and one appearance at the French Open semifinals.
Maybe Ferrer had only incremental success in building his career, but by 2007 he was earning a reputation as one of the best returners in tennis. Following his upset of Nadal in the 2007 U.S. Open, Roger Federer said that Ferrer and Nadal ranked as the best returners in the game, according to Carl Bialik of The Wall Street Journal.
His 2007 fourth round victory over Nadal also made headlines when Ferrer was spotted some hours later eating a McDonalds Big Mac at 4:15 a.m. because it was the only food he could find available, as reported by ESPN.
Ferrer had paid the price to eat his bread years before. Katy Murrells of the UK Guardian wrote that when Ferrer was a teenager, his coach locked him in a small tennis storage closet with only bread and water for several hours, to teach him motivation.
He still plays as if he was starving for victores. It’s an insatiable approach to consuming every match as if it were his last meal. There is no discouragement in his energetic play, and he is one of the few players that will one day look back, satisfied he poured in every ounce of his fighting spirit.
Ferrerr is four years older than Nadal but clearly the little brother in the Spanish tennis hierarchy. They are friends and have played Davis Cup matches together, but Ferrer has won only four of 21 career meetings and lost 13 of the past 14 matches (The lone victory his triumphant 2011 Australian Open win to end Nadal’s attempt to hold all four Grand Slam titles).
Last month, Nadal crushed Ferrer 6-0, 6-2 at Acapulco, Mexico to take the title, spur him on to victory at Indian Wells and leapfrog Ferrer for the No. 4 ranking. But this war is just beginning.
Nadal’s absence and Ferrer’s run at Miami will flip-flop them again for the No. 4 ranking, and the battle will continue for the upcoming clay-court season. Nadal must defend a treasury of 2500 points at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. Ferrer can actually widen the gap at Monte Carlo simply by getting past the second round, even if Nadal does win the title.
Nadal and Ferrer’s battle for the No. 4 ranking could also have important ramifications for the 2013 French Open draw. If Nadal cannot gain the No. 4 seed, he may possibly face an opponent like Djokovic, Federer or Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. This is one more dangerous opponent and possibly less reserve of strength and stamina for subsequent rounds.
But while Ferrer may influence the crowning of the French Open champion, don’t overlook the possibility that he may find his own ultimate triumph in shocking the world for this prize. It would be fitting on the silver anniversary of Michael Chang’s big-hearted and lone Grand Slam win at his outlying age and against legendary opponents.
But right now, Ferrer is only focused on trying to slay another talented player in Haas. Then he will be running off to his next match, hungry for another win. He does not have time to rest.