David Ferrer had an incredible career year in 2012. His 76 wins and seven titles were both good for ATP-best. We discuss the tennis world’s perception of the World No. 5 in this week’s Changeover Chat, a quick back-and-forth exchange between the writing staff at The Changeover.
Amy: So, there are 144,000 search results when Googling “David Ferrer,” and “underrated.” Is David Ferrer underrated? Overrated? Both?
Lindsay: I think Ferrer is properly rated and respected as a tennis player by people on the circuit, but perhaps a little underrated when it comes to “celebrity,” if that makes sense.
Juan José: I propose looking at Ferrer’s under/over/properly-ratedness as a journey. I think Ferrer went through a period where he was definitely being underrated, then as he established himself near the top 5 and everybody still claimed he was underrated, Ferrer became overrated. But now, given his amazing 2012, he’s properly rated. Particularly after winning that elusive Masters 1000 crown.
Amy: Ferrer is a fantastic tennis player, but I do not think he is currently underrated in the tennis community, and I’m slightly tired of hearing him constantly described that way.
Juan José: I do think that he gets overlooked by a large chunk of tennis fans, but not so by the media or the players.
Lindsay: I’d agree with that. Before this year he had underachieved a bit – he had never made the semis of the French Open or won a Masters 1000!
Juan José: Tournaments tend to favor other lower-ranked and less accomplished players when they assign who plays on show courts, and let’s not forget that Indian Wells completely forgot to schedule a Ferrer match this year.
Lindsay: There’s a difference between underrated and overlooked – once again, I go back to the “celebrity” aspect, and the fact that he’s just a more under-the-radar personality than a lot of the showboats on tour.
Juan José: Yes, being overlooked and underrated are two separate things.
Amy: He is lower profile than some other top players. But there’s not a serious tennis fan, member of the tennis media, or tennis player who doesn’t highly respect his game and give him effusive praise.
Juan José: I agree with you, Amy – but the key thing is your term, “serious tennis fan.”
Amy: Many casual tennis fans hardly know anyone aside from the Big Four (or maybe even outside Federer and Nadal). That’s not unique to Ferrer.
And let’s not forget, there are other players who get similar treatment when it comes to the show courts, right or wrong. Juan Martin del Potro, 2009 US Open champion, didn’t get to play a match on Arthur Ashe his first year back after winning the title. (Of course, he wasn’t able to defend his title in 2010, but he didn’t get to play on Ashe in 2011 when he returned, despite playing three matches.) This year, it wasn’t until he was playing against Andy Roddick in the fourth round that he got to play a match there. In that case, Del Potro had even won a Major, but because he’s similarly low profile, he got the same kind of treatment we’re talking about with Ferrer. So I guess I’m saying, yes, Ferrer is low profile, but not uniquely so.
Juan José: The interesting thing about Ferrer is how he will handle next year, when he’s seen as a legit top 5 guy, and he’ll be trying to back up his best year on tour at age 30.
Lindsay: My issue with Ferrer isn’t exactly with him, but rather with the language the media uses to discuss him. In 2007, when he made his US Open breakthrough, the only talking points were how hard-working he is, how he used to think of himself as one of the worst players in the top 100, and how he was locked in the closet. Putting the focus on his work ethic and grinder mentality was appropriate since making the semifinals of the US Open that year was such a surprise. The “terrier” and “bulldog” and “pitbull” and “insert dog of choice here” analogies were somewhat appropriate. But five years later it’s time to talk about him in a different way. He’s a top player. He’s not the Big Four. His game has flaws, as does his mental state at times against the best of the best. Sometimes it feels like the praise he gets from commentators during matches is over-exaggerated because they don’t think he should really be there, and it strikes me as patronizing.
Amy: Yes, the language the media uses in discussing him gets under my skin.
Lindsay: I get frustrated because I feel like commentators won’t hold him up to the same scrutiny that they do a Berdych or a Tsonga because they think that he’s overachieved. But I think he’s a great tennis player and it’s time to talk about him like he deserves to be there, because he does. And when you deserve to be there, you also get criticized when you don’t bring your best. And I know this is confusing to express, but when I don’t see him being examined under the same microscope as other players, I almost find it insulting for him. David Ferrer is not a fluke.
Juan José: I think that’s definitely an issue. But it’s not an issue that’s only affecting Ferrer, though. I mean, how many times did we hear about Roddick dropping 20 pounds? Djokovic going gluten-free? Mardy Fish dropping 20 pounds? Nadal adding ounces to the frame of his racquet? Azarenka’s shorts? Tennis media loves to attach a narrative to a player, and unless things radically change, that player will be stuck with the narrative forever. To the detriment of us having to listen to that tired discourse over and over again.
Lindsay: That’s true. But it’s been five years now. FIVE. It’s time to adjust the narrative and the expectations.
Amy: Well said, Lindsay. All we ever hear about Ferrer is talk that he’s underrated, various dog or animal comparisons, and praise of his great work ethic. It seems impossible to talk about the weaknesses in his game like we would with any other top player, for fear of appearing like we don’t appreciate him enough. Like you said, it’s insulting to him for us to act like he deserves no scrutiny. We criticize far more accomplished players than Ferrer with no hesitation. We expect great things from great players. Why should he be any different?
Juan José: To your point, Linz, I don’t think Ferrer is in the same talent class as Berdych or Tsonga. He doesn’t have the big weapons those guys have. He does have incredible stamina and amazing speed (apart from being a great returner). But in terms of weapons, Ferrer is a classic underdog: having to work harder than those blessed with greater talents.
Amy: What is talent, really? Ferrer’s talent lies in his court movement and consistency. Discussions of talent shouldn’t only encompass having big shots. Court movement is a weapon, too.
Lindsay: He might not have the weapons and flashy shot making, but he can hit some impressive winners. And like Amy said, court movement and instincts are weapons, and frankly they’re weapons that a lot of the other top players don’t have.
Amy: I’m sure plenty of players would love to have Ferrer’s talent in moving around the court, his technically sound groundstrokes, or his tennis IQ. So I guess I just wish we could have a real discussion about Ferrer’s game once in a while, discarding some of the clichés. Yes, he’s a hard worker, but he’s also very talented.
Juan José: It’s definitely true that hardly anyone talks about Ferrer’s limitations. For example: his inability to get depth consistently. This is the single reason why he’s never beaten Roger Federer, yet nobody will mention it, because Ferrer “fights so hard.” We never talk about how Ferrer rarely if ever goes down the line with his backhand, which gets him in trouble against guys with good backhands, because “Ferrer is so dogged.” And we never really heard about how Ferrer underachieved for years at the French Open by running himself into the ground before the biggest slam on his best surface, because “Ferrer is so professional.”
Regarding talent, let’s just frame it as the ability to win points in the easiest way possible. It’s eminently easier for Berdych, Tsonga, Federer, et al. to win a single tennis point than it is for David Ferrer, who doesn’t have an overpowering serve (although he has improved it significantly over the past two years) to get free points, doesn’t have a huge forehand that penetrates the court and alters the dynamics of a point with one swing, doesn’t have a consistent slice backhand to draw errors and change up the pace, and can’t really finish points or change the direction of the ball all that well with his backhand. On the other hand, you have someone like Tsonga, who has a big serve, a big forehand, and incredible athleticism at net. Winning points becomes a much simpler task for someone like him. Same for Berdych.
Do you guys really think Berdych or Tsonga would switch their skill set with Ferrer’s, if they could? Absolutely not. Why would they? To get the same results they get now, only with a ton more work?
Amy: I’m not sure about that. I think they’d like to have his consistency. But back to Ferrer, if we’re being totally honest, he has as many mental issues against the Big Four as Tsonga and Berdych do. We don’t talk about Ferrer as if he’s a head case against the top guys the way we do with Tsonga and Berdych, but he really is. Just look at the World Tour Finals match against Federer this year. That was all mental.
Juan José: Ferrer has been slowly chipping away at his mental block against the Big Four. Let’s remember that this guy went on record saying that he was the worst player in the top 100. It’s been a long and slow process to get from that statement to where he is now.
Amy: How exactly is he chipping away though? He had just one win over the Big Four this year, coming at the French Open against Andy Murray, who had a generally lackluster clay season. Ferrer had more (three) wins against the Big Four in 2011. I just don’t see any progress there.
Juan José: To beat the big guys repeatedly, you need to have a certain kind of swagger, to see yourself as their equal, and I’m not sure Ferrer is there, or if he’ll ever be there. He treats his wins over the Big Four as some sort of accident. But in terms of progress in that department, you’re right, he regressed in 2012, although I will point to that Wimbledon quarterfinal against Murray, where he gave the eventual finalist all he could handle, on what’s surely his worst surface. That was progress.
Also, Ferrer does have more wins against the Big Four than Berdych and Tsonga (Ferrer has 14, Berdych has 13 and Tsonga has 12). Ferrer’s problem is that he’s 4-30 combined against Federer and Nadal, while only 10-15 against Murray and Djokovic. In a way, Ferrer has more of a Federer and Nadal problem, and less of a Big Four problem.
Lindsay: I think that something that is underrated is Ferrer’s indoor court prowess. He has the label of a clay court specialist, when until this year his best Slam results came on hard courts, and on indoor courts he is so, so dangerous due to his above-mentioned movement and instincts. He’s so quick and so smart on court that he is deadly when he gets in the zone on that surface. It doesn’t surprise me that his Masters title came indoors. Davis Cup opponents continuously discount this when picking the surfaces.
Juan José: I agree, Lindsay – Ferrer has been awesome on fast indoor surfaces, which used to be Enemy No. 2 (after grass) for clay-courters. Let’s not forget, Ferrer has won a grass tournament twice, and made the aforementioned quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Lindsay: He played so well in that fourth round match against Roddick this year. Roddick was actually close to the top of his grass court game, but Ferrer was just lethal after the first set. He is no one-trick pony. (We should at least mix up the animal references.)
Juan José: Something about Ferrer: what if Nadal doesn’t ever come around? How much does that impact Ferrer’s career? I bring this up because Ferrer has often talked about how he is dying to win Barcelona. He’s lost that final four times to Nadal. He’s lost two Masters 1000 finals to Nadal. I mean, isn’t it a little unfortunate that as a great clay courter (which he is), you run into the Greatest Clay Courter Ever right as you’re in your prime?
Would Ferrer have the same confidence to win a major had he won those big clay tournaments? The confidence players get from winning that type of tournament is what translates into confidence to beat the big guys and win the big trophies.
Lindsay: Or has Nadal pushed Ferrer in a way?
Juan José: That’s a good question, but I feel like Ferrer has had a tough time rebounding from those losses.
Lindsay: To reach both of his Grand Slam hard court semifinals he’s beaten Nadal – although it’s worth noting that at the 2011 Australian Open, Nadal was ailing. But still, Troicki would have found a way to lose to an injured Djokovic.
Juan José: Yep – Nadal was injured both times Ferrer beat him at Slams. It’s funny that Ferrer made the semifinals at the hard court Slams before making the last four at the French. I think he approaches hard court majors in a much more healthy way, kind of with the “nothing to lose” mentality.
Lindsay: Also he also doesn’t kill himself during warm-up tournaments.
Amy: So, can Ferrer build on his success next year, or is this as good as it gets?
Juan José: That’s the half-million dollar question. I wonder how Ferrer would feel if at some point he manages to be ranked ahead of Nadal. It could happen this year.
Lindsay: I think if Nadal struggles to find his form, particularly in clay season, that Ferrer might find the room to squeak into the top 4 and get another Masters title. But it’s hard to see him as an actual Slam threat – I’d say that even without Nadal he’s at least No. 7 going into any slam, behind Del Potro, Berdych, and Tsonga. Other than his impressive quarterfinal scrap against Murray at Wimbledon this year, he went out tamely in the other Slams (to Djokovic twice and to Nadal at the French Open).
Amy: Look no further than the last half of 2012 to see that Nadal’s absence didn’t move Ferrer much closer to winning a Slam. Hypothetically, let’s say Nadal doesn’t even play Roland Garros in 2013 (only for the sake of argument). Ferrer reaches the final and faces Djokovic, Murray, or Federer. I don’t think he wins a Grand Slam final against those guys. His only chance would be if Del Potro or another good matchup manages the upset to reach the final. Even with Nadal hypothetically out, a lot of things would have to go right for him to even threaten to win a Slam. Of course, Nadal will likely be there anyway.
Juan José: Hey, if you’re putting Andy Murray in the French Open final, you bet I’m picking Ferrer over him.
Here’s a brutal stat: Ferrer is 1-13 against Nadal on clay. I think this has to hurt Ferrer’s confidence, since he sees himself as a clay courter and calls clay his best surface. It has to be depressing to lose over and over again to the same person when you’re playing well in the conditions you love the most.
Lindsay: Unless Nadal isn’t in top form during clay season.
Amy: It’s likely Ferrer can pass Nadal in the rankings for the first part of the year, since Nadal has Australian Open final points to defend and Ferrer has only quarterfinal points to defend. But after that, Ferrer has to back up a year in which he won the most matches out of anyone on the ATP World Tour. And he’ll be 31. His game is so physical, what happens if he goes the way of someone like Hewitt? Unfortunately that grinding game gets harder and harder to sustain as you get older. Then again, he was playing so incredibly well at the end of the year, and I see no valid reason to assume he won’t keep playing well next year.
Lindsay: His year was amazing. We’re being tough on him out of respect, but really, what an excellent year he had. And I’m still not over the scars from how well he played in Austin in Davis Cup in 2011.
Amy: Absolutely. Ferrer especially set an example of consistency for those ranked just under him, Berdych, Delpo, and Tsonga. He’s a huge cut above them in that regard, and they can learn a great deal from his example.
Juan José: Yes – Ferrer has had an amazing year, and it’s been a great story. I think the last month of the season was simply amazing. The only misstep in that whole stretch (and his lone loss) was that weak performance against Federer at the World Tour Finals.
Lindsay: My wish for Ferrer in 2013 is that he gets to reap the benefits of his great 2012 in other ways – I hope he gets more show courts, is requested for interviews, and that he finds the confidence and desire to open up to the media a bit so people can get to know him. Basically I just hope that he’s appreciated. Because maybe when people go on and on about how underrated he is, they really mean underappreciated and overlooked. It’s almost a Davydenko situation.
Amy: Agreed with all that, Lindsay. And my hope for 2013 is that we can discuss Ferrer in an intellectually honest way, and stop calling him a terrier. He’s not a dog; he’s a really good tennis player. And we should treat him as such.
Juan José: I share your wish, Linz, and add one thing: I hope Ferrer finally beats Federer!
Amy: Of course you do!
Lindsay: Ferrer’s no longer the chain-smoking, McDonalds-eating surprise of the 2007 US Open. Time to adjust our hopes, expectations, and rhetoric.
Juan José: What if the guy who takes the most out of Davis Cup is actually Ferrer? If anything, he was the one who put on the Djokovic-in-2010 performance. The difference for Spain was that Almagro couldn’t seal the deal.
Amy: I think it’ll be Stepanek. He’ll go on to win two Slams next year. Book it.
Juan José: HA, AMY.
Amy: Wearing his rat shirt.
Lindsay: Doing the worm.
Well, I think over the past few years Ferrer has gotten the most out of Davis Cup. It’s been a huge blessing for him to have Nadal out of Davis Cup so often. He’s shown that he can step up and be the leader, which is a different aspect to his personality.
Juan José: I agree only partially with that, Linz. I do think that being the Spanish No. 1 in Davis Cup has helped Ferrer get used to being the alpha male and handling expectations better. But I’m pretty sure he’d rather be the No. 2 behind Nadal. And Spain would have another Davis Cup if that would have happened in Prague.
Amy: I’m actually going to have to disagree on this one. In the Davis Cup final, Ferrer won his matches against Stepanek and Berdych in really impressive fashion, but the Spanish team was a bit of a mess in some ways. Numerous observers pointed out the lack of enthusiasm on the Spanish bench, and Feliciano Lopez was creating drama in the media over not being picked to play. You could feel palpable tension during Nicolas Almagro’s matches. I am not sure if Ferrer could’ve done anything about that, but I hesitate to say the team didn’t struggle somewhat in Nadal’s absence without a more vocal leader.
Juan José: That’s where they missed Nadal the most. No way Nadal lets them get away with being so passive.
Amy: Let me be absolutely clear that I’m not placing the blame solely on Ferrer. That would be unfair. But there was a strange vibe there without Nadal. And in my opinion, it hurt them.
Juan José: It really did.
Amy: Someone needed to step in, and no one did. I believe that Rafa would have done something.
Lindsay: That’s true. On court, Ferrer is great at showing up and dealing with the pressure, but off-court he is still not the alpha male type. They certainly seemed to be missing a leader during the Davis Cup final.
Juan José: I wonder what Ferrer gleaned from that experience (and what Nadal had to say about it).
Amy: This Davis Cup issue illustrates our earlier points. Ferrer’s personality isn’t the same as the Big Four. He’s a quiet, subdued guy. The media’s portrayal of him reflects that, sometimes in unfortunate ways that do him a disservice.
Lindsay: He doesn’t do the work for the media so they rely on the same narratives over and over. Also, he’s not that comfortable in English, which is a huge deal.
Amy: Exactly. He gives them virtually no material. He just goes about his business, which is a great quality for a tennis player, but it doesn’t lend itself to building a media persona. And like you said, he doesn’t speak English very well in a rather English-centric sport.
Lindsay: Right, but it also doesn’t mean he’s an outright victim of the media, which is how some fans act.
Juan José: I agree completely with the media thing. It’s the Davydenko story all over again. And it’s not his fault at all; it’s been the media’s laziness.
Amy: Yup. Final thoughts?
Lindsay: I want to see Ferrer flourish and completely believe in himself. My gut tells me that he’s reached his ceiling, but I’d like to see him prove me wrong.
Amy: It’s always fun to see older players come into their own. I hope he does a little better against the top guys next year, because I firmly believe he can.
Juan José: I really can’t wait to see what Ferrer does next year. I’ve always liked him, and always feared whenever my favorites played him. I also admire the journey he’s been on as a pro: from top 20 guy to top 10 guy, to top 5 guy and winner of a Masters 1000 as well as worthy Spanish No. 1 in Davis Cup. I admire that he keeps going, that he keeps improving, even as he crossed the 30-year-old mark.