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Why David Ferrer Is Underappreciated

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports As he enters the twilight of his career, David Ferrer has re-shaped the identity of success on the ATP tour.

With only a handful of Australian Opens left on the horizon, David Ferrer begins the 2016 season secure in the legacy he’s created.

Let’s admit it, David Ferrer is no one’s favorite player. There’s nothing about him that really elicits any excitement. And if there ever was a fifth wheel in tennis, it is him. 

A modern day Michael Chang, Ferrer never felt the fortune of luck in the draw and ultimately, will likely never win a major. When asked by Sport360.com whether he has a chance to win a grand slam tournament in 2014, Ferrer responded: 

“No I don’t think so … Rafael, Novak, Andy and Roger, for the last five or six years they’re the ones… . I think every year it’s more difficult to be in the Top three, Top four or Top 10. I will be 32 years old next year, and I think it’s important not to have any big injuries. My goal is to stay amongst the top players in the world, to be Top eight or Top ten in 2014—that would be a good result for me.”

Sacré bleu!!! Where is the fire? Where is the competitive spirit? No, David Ferrer does not share in those delusions, and he is not impressed. It is a refreshingly honest take from a champion—and make no mistake, Ferrer is one of Spain’s greatest champions ever—who will forever be perceived as Nadal’s wingman. But Ferrer is so much more. 

With the exception of Nadal, Ferrer has far eclipsed the accomplishments of his Spanish cohorts in titles (26), consistency at majors, and longevity in the top 10. In fact, aside from the freakish consistency of Tommy Robredo, Ferrer has more quarterfinal finishes or better in majors (16) than any other Spaniard has fourth round or better finishes (15, by Manuel Orantes, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Fernando Verdasco). Ferrer has also exhibited greater consistency across all surfaces, with only 28% of all fourth round or better finishes occurring at the French Open. The red clay of Roland Garros has been good to Spanish players over the years, to the point of detriment. 

The majority of successful Spaniards have been clay-court specialists; the only players having a lower fourth-round finish rate at the French Open (as compared to Ferrer) are Ferrero at 27% and Feliciano Lopez at 8%. Nadal, I believe, should also get a pass. The sheer weight of his numbers across the board prove that he’s no one-major wonder. The same cannot be said of, for example, Carlos Moya (46%), Sergi Bruguera (56%), and Albert Costa (63%)—all of whom are major winners at…you guessed it, the French Open. Nadal, Ferrer and Ferrero offer the best examples of all-court proficiency, so perhaps a better comparison would be to look at the careers of the latter two, with Chang thrown in for completeness.

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We can agree that by almost every metric, save for major titles where the difference is nominal, David Ferrer has had a better career than Juan Carlos Ferrero. More titles, better finishes at the majors, higher ranking year-over-year and head-to-head record (7-2). But what do we make of Chang? He’s the one with more titles, matching year-end top 10s and the win at the ’89 French Open. Slam dunk, right? Ehhh…not so much when you dig deeper.

Firstly, Chang was effectively finished after the age of 25, never again reaching the top 10 and only advancing past the second round twice in major championships. This is what makes Ferrer so innately unique and his career arch so unprecedented. Sixteen of his 25 fourth round or better finishes and 12 of his 16 quarterfinal or better came AFTER the age of 29. That’s insane. Of course, we’ve seen the likes of Federer and Agassi (and probably Djokovic) flourish into their 30’s. 

But these were champions who were simply blessed with a better body and more talent than Ferrer. These are legends. And while I’ll stop short of saying they didn’t have to work as hard, they are/were savants at the sport and their hard work didn’t merely yield incremental improvements, but rather quantum leaps. Ferrer has been able to extend his prime through his early 30’s while his contemporaries, Nadal included, have seen their games slip.

Let’s also take a moment to review Chang’s record against top 20 opponents:

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From the chart above, two numbers should immediately pop out: total matches and winning percentage. For two players who, at this point, have the same number of years to compare, it’s surprising that Ferrer has 26 more matches against top 20 opponents then Chang had through his 15 years on tour. That’s an important statistic because it’s indicative of overall success at a tournament. 

After all, top guys are expected to advance and traditionally, won’t face-off until at least the midway point of the event. So a player has to already win several matches before having an opportunity to play a top 20 opponent. Considering that Chang averaged 18.6 matches against top 20 players in the years he played at least ten matches against them(10 years: 1989-1997, 2000), an overall discrepancy of 26 matches represents more than a season’s worth of top-flight competition that Chang never faced. 

Ferrer, by comparison, has averaged 20.6 matches spread over 12 years (2003, 2005-2015). Stated simplistically, in an average year of their primes, Ferrer has had an average of two extra “tough” matches against elite competition,which might have easily made the difference in a grand slam or masters-level event.

Looking now at winning percentage, we see that not only does Ferrer have a greater overall success rate (47% to Chang’s 40%), but by almost every other metric, Ferrer has been more competitive against the best talents of his generation. For example, compare (1) the number of years where he’s finished with a .500 mark or better (5 for Ferrer versus 4 for Chang), or (2) peak success year (2012 for Ferrer with 19 wins versus 1995 for Chang with 14 wins), or (3) their top five seasons (Ferrer averaged 15 wins for the 2007, 2010-2013 seasons for a winning percentage of 55% while Chang averaged 12 wins for the 1992, 1994-1997 seasons at 52%). 

And then there’s the luck factor. With respect to 17-year old Chang’s victory in the 1989 French Open, consider Chang’s own comments after facing top-ranked Ivan Lendl in the 4th round (as reported by New York Times reporter Nick Stout): “ ‘I was surprised that I was able to hang on so long,’ said Chang, who is from Placentia, Calif. ‘Both my thighs were cramping. I just tried to hang on for as long as I could, and knew that if the Lord wanted me to win, I’d win.’ ” OK, so I guess based on the outcome, the Lord had it in for Lendl that day, but what about the rest of his competition? 

Aside from Lendl, Chang never faced a top 20 opponent until the finals, where he would meet the 3rd-ranked, and exceedingly suave, Stefan Edberg. Furthermore, apart from the magical ’89 French Open run, Chang would never again beat either Sampras or Edberg in a major, going a combined 0-8 over the rest of his career.[1] As for Lendl, it turns out that Chang would never meet Lendl again in a major draw; however, in subsequent meetings, Chang would go a robust 1-5. 

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So based on the above breakdown in numbers, it’s not so obvious that Chang had the better career. It’s debatable at least. What Ferrer has been able to accomplish—both from an age perspective and against arguably the greatest tennis generation (this side of the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s), is unprecedented. He’s been a stalwart of Spanish tennis and the game’s best little man. To describe him as a “bulldog” or an “ultimate scrapper” is at best lazy and at worst, an insult to Ferrer’s talent. 

But then again, maybe these characterizations are all that we have to describe a man who doesn’t naturally fit into our perceptions of how a tennis player should succeed. Our first instinct is to ruffle his hair and give him the “Atta boy!!! You hang in there!” routine as he scurries about the court like a squirrel chasing a nut. He doesn’t have a ton of power from the baseline, and standing a diminutive 5’9”, he lacks any semblance of a threatening serve. He’s also the definition of a late bloomer.

But Ferrer is an interesting reflection of the adage that “perfect is the enemy of the good.” He doesn’t have the physicality of Nadal, or the flexibility of Djokovic, or the defensive prowess of Murray, or the other-worldly ball-striking of Federer. And therefore, our impulse is to discount the art of being average, which really, is probably the best we can do to describe Ferrer’s game. This is certainly an oversimplification, but the point is taken: he’s average—at everything. 

Average is easily forgotten and certainly shouldn’t get you to the top 10, which is where Ferrer’s been seven of the past nine years. Ferrer, in essence, is the blueprint of what most tour professionals should strive to achieve—maximization of potential without any real glaring holes. But for circumstances out of his control (heredity and tennis generation especially[2]), Ferrer most certainly would have ascended to at least one major slam victory.

[1] As an aside, don’t let that 8-12 record against Sampras fool you. Chang won theirfirst five meetings—all before Sampras entered into the top 10. In fact, the last of the first five matches occurred at the 1990 Thriftway ATP Championships (now the Western & Southern Open, a.k.a. Cincinnati Masters) when Sampras was ranked 12th. He would enter the top 10 a few weeks later and remain there for the next 11 years. Over that span Sampras would compile a dominating 12-3 record against Chang. Not exactly competitive. Edberg, on the other hand, never did quite have Chang’s number.  

[2] In addition to Chang, see also Ferrero, Costa, Lleyton Hewitt, Gastón Gaudio, and Thomas Johansson, with the latter five squeezing in major victories between 2001 and 2004, i.e. after the Sampras reign and before Federer and Nadal.

Edited by William Ledy.

SQuiz
Who won the Australian Open in the year the tournament transitioned to Melbourne Park, its current site?
Created 1/14/16
  1. Mats Wilander
  2. Stefan Edberg
  3. Jim Courier
  4. Ivan Lendl

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