Rafael Nadal def David Ferrer 7-6, 7-5
Barcelona, ATP 500, 2012
The Dogged Daveed. The pitbull; the fierce terrier; the never-say-die grinder; little man with the big fight... and so on and so forth. David Ferrer is heaped with so many character-based descriptors that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he also plays a mean game of tennis. Commentators tend to praise David for his heart and courage in such a way that implies he has little else with which to arm himself on the court. It’s an odd way to portray the game of a player who has been sitting just outside the top four for over a year now. There’s also an assumption that David is strictly a defensive player, that his speed and grit give him the ability to react well to players with bigger games or grind down flashier opponents, but he’s not typically characterized as one who generates his own luck. David Ferrer is cast as the man who defies destiny, rather than the hero who makes his own.
It’s true that, at 5' 9" Ferrer is several inches shorter than is convenient for a professional tennis player. In comparison to the rest of the top ten his serve is rather less weaponized, and he doesn’t have a kill-shot that sizzles with brute power. In his more mediocre moments David does grind-on… and on. But apart from a poorly played tiebreak, today wasn’t a mediocre day. The straight set Barcelona final took two hours and forty minutes, almost double the length of the Nadal/Dkovic final in Monte Carlo, but it wasn’t a dull grindfest. Granted, the match was far from perfect. The quality dipped and veered, but both players brought the good stuff often enough to make it well worth the investment.
Ferrer and Nadal are both defensive-minded players by nature, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also play stunning offense. Long rallies were peppered with should-be winners countered by dramatic saves. Nets were rushed and drop shots were carved. Points were often ended with heavy forehands curling off Rafa’s racquet, or frequently, with a sharp angled winner from Ferrer. David's ability to create angles out of almost anything thrown in his direction is one of my favorite things about watching him play. On clay he also weaves elaborate and clever paths to an understated winner or a deceptively simple put-away volley. So long as time isn't at an utter premium, a good day from David is an enjoyable one for me.
In the Barcelona final, David constructed points beautifully, throwing Nadal off his game early in the first set. To be fair, today’s Rafa was nervier by far than the Rafa of earlier rounds. There are those who blame direct semifinal contact with high levels of Fernando vibes for Nadal’s (relatively) poor serving/forehand performance today. Add the angsty Ferbrations to the fact that this final was one that Nadal was expected to win (the dreaded favorite!) and you’ve got a plausible explanation for Nadal’s up and down game. But a hearty measure of Rafa’s discomfiture, particularly in the first set, ought to be attributed to David’s smart, aggressive play. Often stepping inside the baseline, David took the ball early, changed direction seamlessly off both the forehand and backhand wings, returned serve like a man with a plan, and generally generated his own luck for the duration of the first set—or at least, until he earned his first set point.
As Nadal himself acknowledged, Ferrer was often the better player in today’s final. However David didn’t win, and it wasn’t really because he got, as Rafa said, “a little bit unlucky.” Take Ferrer’s first break of serve to go up 2-0 in the first as an example. David played forceful, decisive tennis to take the game from Nadal, and then he played a tentative, error strewn service game to put the match right back on serve. This pattern of zoned-in aggression followed by general nerviness and anxiety repeated itself many times over—in big and small ways—throughout the match. For all that David plays with a big heart and a never-say-die attitude; he tends to play scared when he sticks his neck out in front of one of the big four. David had five set points to the good in the first, and after he failed to convert he played a dismal tiebreak. To his credit, he didn't fall away in the second set, but he also found himself in a familiar position, playing Nadal close, but playing one-down.
Ferrer had the game to hang in there with Nadal today, but it was Rafael Nadal who brought the decisive measure of doggedness to the final. David had fifteen break point opportunities and he converted only three. Did he squander a few? Sure. But mostly, Nadal stepped up his defense with impeccable offense. He amped his forehand when it needed amping, he dug out the passes, he found that cutting serve down the T when he needed it most. He made David unlucky.
The Barcelona 500 Final was the 30-year-old Ferrer’s fifteenth career runner-up performance. Over the last decade David has earned a healthy fourteen career titles. To contextualize, Ferrer's contemporary, the preternaturally gifted David Nalbandian, has eleven career titles and eleven finalist appearances. But as of today, at 25 years old, Rafael Nadal has fifteen titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona alone. Throughout his career Nadal has appeared in 69 tournament finals, winning a massive 48 titles.
Absolutely, Ferrer is a brave and courageous. There’s no doubt he’s a fighter, but the Barcelona final highlighted the reductive way his persona is disseminated to tennis fans. Some of the walls that block Ferrer's way have nothing to do with his lack of physical stature or his awkward backhand swing. If his tennis skills are often underrated, it must also be noted that Ferrer doesn’t approach every point with a fierce pit-bullish tunnel vision. Today, Rafael Nadal played the big points bigger and braver than David dared.
Was the outcome of this final ever on David’s racquet? I’m not sure. But seeing his tears during the post-match interview, I couldn’t help thinking that he was closer this time— and that he knew it. I can’t say whether this makes me hopeful, or if it adds a little to the heartache. Both, perhaps.
As far as Rafa is concerned, a solid 500 final and back-to-back titles equal “fantastic preparations ” for his run to Roland Garros. For all that Monte Carlo is a Masters and Barcelona is as close as Nadal will get to a hometown tournament, they're just the beginning. Bring on the blue.