25 October, 2012

Total Eclipse of the Star

Everyone knows tennis is a cruel mistress, most of all the players.  She’s exacting, calculating and fickle. Serves rained down at 130 mph are judged within millimeters; deciding matches, tournaments, seasons.  Every week the players (and anyone who cares to look) know exactly where they stand in the grand scheme of things; the tour’s 52-week rolling rankings, virtually unique in sport, do a fair job of minimizing conjecture.  Tennis moves on with devastating speed.  No sooner does a player kiss the championship hardware does the process to replace him begin, a process known all too well by Juan Carlos Ferrero

Ferrero was a fixture on the ATP Tour for over a decade before playing his last professional match this week in Valencia, his hometown event and the one he co-owns.  More than one of the tour’s transient role players, Ferrero summited many of the highest peaks the sport offers.  He reached the ATP No. 1 ranking, something only 25 men have ever done.  He reached three major finals, securing his place in history by winning at Roland Garros in 2003.  That said, how will we remember Juan Carlos Ferrero; for what he did, for what he didn’t; or as a mere footnote? 

The 2003 season in which Ferrero made his biggest mark was one of sea change.   Andre Agassi won the last major of his storied career in Australia.  Agassi played for three more years and reached another major final, but that title marked the de facto end of the greatest era in American tennis.  Ferrero backed up his Monte Carlo title by winning at the de facto claycourt world championships at Roland Garros.  Ferrero was temporarily installed as the new king of clay, after being upset in the prior year’s final by his fellow Spanish Armada-mate Albert Costa.  At Wimbledon, the extremely talented and at the time terminally frustrating Roger Federer finally lived up to his billing with his maiden major.  While the US Open was won by big serving Andy Roddick; a sign that the sport’s dominant nation wasn’t receding, only reloading in the post-Agassi/Sampras era…or so we all assumed at the time.

Ferrero followed up that transitional 2003 with a pockmarked 2004.  He began the year burnishing his resume as a man for all surfaces, backing up his US Open final with a semifinal run in Australia.  Then the chicken pox, then a first round loss in Monte Carlo, then a rib injury and a second round loss at Roland Garros and so on and so on.  The player who held the World No. 1 slot in fall 2003, didn’t even end 2004 among the world’s top 30.  Injuries are a natural part of athletic life, but Ferrero ended 2004 staring down an even more menacing, and wholly natural, part of athletic life…being passed by.  

Ferrero had the opportunity to salvage his annus horribilis in the 2004 Davis Cup final.  Spain would play Roddick and the USA, on clay, in Seville, Spain.  The team captain had Ferrero on his roster, a still potent ex-No. 1 Carlos Moya a bit down the bench and sometime top tenner Tommy Robredo there as well.  Who would score the pivotal win in the tie?  None of them.  It was Moya’s little buddy.  A stringy haired 18 year old Mallorqueno who wasn’t even ranked in the ATP top 50 at the time, Rafael Nadal.

Nadal, then, wasn’t yet the King of Clay.  He’d never even played at Roland Garros; a career-threatening foot injury had taken him out of the tournament in 2004.  Ferrero on the other hand had reached four consecutive semifinals in Paris.  Nadal’s biggest match prior to his Davis Cup staredown of Roddick was a straight-sets win over the nascent No. 1 Roger Federer in Miami.  The kid lost in the next round to big-hitting Chilean Fernando Gonzalez.  Unproven, with no real laurels to speak of, Captain Jordi Arrese picked Nadal, over Ferrero to play against the American No. 1 Roddick.  The reeling Ferrero was relegated to doubles…and he didn’t exactly shine there either. He and Robredo were thrashed love, three and two by the Bryan Brothers.  Carlos Moya would clinch the tie with his win in the fourth rubber of the tie, but it was the kid, Nadal, who was feted as the hero.   The toughest beating Ferrero took from Nadal happened when they were on the same team.

In September, we celebrated the end of Andy Roddick’s career; a feat impossible without mentioning a certain Swiss man.  The collateral damage of the Federer supremacy was the eclipse of Andy Roddick.  No doubt, the American had a fruitful career, contesting five major finals (and every time Roger Federer wasn’t across the net, winning).  Roddick eventually would win the Davis Cup and reached No. 1 in 2003 as well, but his resume pales next to Federer’s.  Roddick’s good fortune was that no matter how much more his tormenter won, he was still the top dog in American tennis.   Seeing the world, millions in endorsements, supermodel wife; sign us—and pretty much every other guy in the country—up for that and we’d forget about asking the genie for more wishes.  Ferrero, on the other hand, had Nadal right in his kitchen.

It took a little over a year for Ferrero to go from top of the world, and Spanish No. 1 to an also-ran.  By the time Roland Garros 2005 came around, the buzz was all about the potential of another Spanish triumph, not by Ferrero, the champ just two years prior, but by the kid, Nadal.  Nadal with his exotic piratas, wild hair and unconventional bolo forehand didn’t look like anything the tennis world had seen before and certainly not like the relatively clean cut, low key, conventional Ferrero.  Ferrero had a strong claycourt season in 2003, but Nadal dominated the surface in 2005 leaving Ferrero no quarter.  They met four times that year; Ferrero couldn’t muster a set.  By the end of 2005, Nadal had won eleven titles, virtually sweeping the clay court calendar with eight titles on the terre battue.   Ferrero improved on his ranking, climbing from a low water mark of No. 98 to finish 17th in the world

That’s as far as the comeback would go.  After finishing in the top five for three consecutive years, Ferrero never again cracked the top ten, at times falling out of the Top 100 altogether.  After winning Roland Garros in 2003, Ferrero wouldn’t win another tournament of any size for a further six years.  Meanwhile the legend of Nadal continued to grow.  Yes, Ferrero won Roland Garros; just two years later Nadal annexed it.   Once, then twice, then thrice, then a fourth time, he missed a year in the winner’s circle, but after eight visits to the starting line, Nadal had claimed seven titles.  Ferrero scored two wins in the 2000 Davis Cup final, after being shelved in favor of Nadal in 2004, Ferrero would only play five more Davis Cup matches over the next eight years.  The more Nadal won, the more Ferrero faded to the background; playing Federer to Ferrero’s Roddick.

The man from Valencia claimed sixteen titles, was one of only eight major winners to play on tour this year (six remain) and was the second-to-last World No. 1 before the now nine year reign of the Big 3, but did Ferrero have a Hall of Fame career?  We would be hard pressed to say yes.  He had a phenomenal year in 2003, but unlike Roddick or Michael Chang, a single slam winner in Newport; Ferrero didn’t consistently hover near the top of the world order, nor did he routinely challenge the top dogs on anything approaching big stages.  Ferrero retires a transitional figure, deep in the shadow of his countryman, where he spent almost the entirety of his career.  The greatest opponent of Ferrero’s career was Nadal, a man he never played on a big stage.  We can never minimize what Ferrero’s achieved, but what will history have to say about him?  Probably: "He was the Spanish guy before Nadal."  Is that fair?  No.  Is it sport...you know it.


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