By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know when it happened. But David Ferrer has transformed himself into a top tennis player. Ferrer has been a very good player for a long time now. He has been in or around the top 20 since 2005 and was having good runs in Slams that long ago as well. That’s not what I mean when I say he is a top player. I mean that Ferrer is just a tiny step below the top 4. That’s how good he is right now.
It’s not really possible to point out a time when Ferrer made the jump from “top 15 player” to “player who can compete with anyone”, but it has occurred gradually over the past several years. Starting in 2011, Ferrer really just stopped losing matches to players that he should beat. Since then, Ferrer’s competitiveness and mental toughness against other top players—those who he shouldn’t necessarily beat—has risen gradually but very noticeably.
Ferrer still gets upset. Everyone does. But now, when every tournament starts, Ferrer is almost expected to make the semifinals. Yes, the players like Berdych, Tsonga, Del Potro, and others of that class can beat him. But Ferrer is now expected to win those matches. He comes in as the favorite when he meets anyone below the top 5.
If anyone is benefiting from Nadal’s absence from tennis, it’s Ferrer. In 2011 and 2012, Ferrer used to be an important spoiler in the draw. If he was placed in Federer’s or Nadal’s quarter, he was dead meat. If he was against Djokovic or Murray, he actually had a chance and could pull off the upset. Now, though, it’s his quarter. He is expected to be a semifinalist in all of the major tournaments. Yes, he’s not as much of a favorite in the draw as the rest of the top 3. But he is the first name in the quarter to look for, something that wouldn’t have been true a few years ago, even if Nadal wasn’t there.
Now, though, Ferrer needs to make that final jump that he seems close to making sometimes. He needs to be able to compete on the same level as the top 4. He needs to actually be considered a factor in those matches. It’s not quite fair against Nadal or Federer. They are just bad matchups for his style of play and they always will be. The zero victories against Federer statistic might not last forever, but he is at a distinct disadvantage against Roger even before the match begins. He has beaten Nadal before, but the same principle holds true. Nadal plays the same basic style as Ferrer; he’s just more powerful and plays it better.
What Ferrer really needs to do to compete with the top 4 is build up his mental toughness. And there have been encouraging signs. Beating Tipsarevic in a fifth-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open was both unexpected and encouraging. It showed a level of mental fortitude that Ferrer had seemed to severely lack for basically his entire career until then. Gutting out the epic five-set win over Almagro here in Melbourne was another very positive sign. At the age of 30, it’s not clear how many years Ferrer has left in which he can compete at his top physical form. What is clear, though, is that if he gets enough time to build up his game mentally we may have to keep him in mind with (or just a tiny bit below) the Big 4 at the beginning of Slams. The trajectory is clear. Before 2010, Ferrer was hit or miss at Slams, usually losing in the first 3 rounds. Since Wimbledon 2010, Ferrer has always reached the fourth round. He has reached 5 straight quarterfinals, with three of those being semifinals appearances (including this one). It’s a big jump to reach the level of the Big 4, but that is definitely the direction that Ferrer is heading towards at the moment. Whether he can reach that point is something that only time can tell.