Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Man Who Won't Be King
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The Man Who Won't Be King 09/04/2009 - 6:00 PM

Jcf Juan Carlos Ferrero spent his Friday digging. He did it in ways big and small. He began by digging himself a two-set hole in his match with Germany’s Philipp Petzschner. To climb out of that, he needed to spend a good couple of hours in the hot afternoon sun bending low, dropping his racquet even lower, and digging out the shoelace-high slice backhands that Petzschner was floating diabolically into the corners. That’s a tough ask for a 29-year-old vet who’s deep into the third act of his dozen-year-old career.

But these days Ferrero is happy in his work. Ranked No. 1 in the world for a minute or two in 2003, the Spaniard, who has long since been usurped by Rafael Nadal and a new generation of fancier ball-strikers and springier athletes, won his first tournament in six years in Casablanca in April. Since knocking that aging but persistent monkey off his back, he says he feels like a new man. The evidence suggests that he’s telling the truth. After falling to No. 115 in the rankings in the spring, his lowest position in 10 years, Ferrero reached the semis in Queens on grass, made the final in Umag on clay, and won two qualifying matches before losing to Andy Murray in the round of 16 in Montreal on hard courts. But Ferrero’s biggest boost may have come from the softhearted lords of Wimbledon, who threw the 2003 French Open champion a lifeline in the form of a wildcard. He made the most of it by reaching the quarters and igniting a rankings climb that currently has him at No. 25 and rising.

His reward? At every press conference, including today’s, he’s asked if he's thinking back to his golden days of ’03. While Ferrero may have been tortured by the past at one point, today he seems genuinely focused on the here and now. He’s certainly heard enough about the days when he was No. 1. Last month in Montreal he was asked, “Is it difficult, after being on top, to come back and have to play qualifying?”

“Of course,” Ferrero said, “it’s very tough to play qualies when you’ve been blah, blah, blah. So it is what it is.”

Ferrero’s career arc has been a gentler version of Martina Hingis’. After a steady five-year rise, his '03 title at Roland Garros and final-round appearance at the U.S. Open later that year appeared to signal the start of a long run at the top, maybe even the beginning of his era. Ferrero’s game—dependable, penetratingly flat ground strokes hit with equal effectiveness crosscourt and up the line, backed by a defensive wall of speed—looked to be the wave of the future. Here was the guy who could finally unite clay and hard court tennis.

Instead, the new era would belong to that year’s Wimbledon champion, Roger Federer, who up until then had played the flashy underachiever to Ferrero’s plugging drone. When Andy Roddick served the weary Spaniard off the court in the 2003 Open final and Federer leveled him in the semifinals of the 2004 Australian Open, it was obvious that a transition had taken place, not unlike the one that occurred on the women’s side a couple of years earlier, when the Williamses left Hingis in the dust. In the blink of an eye, Ferrero’s game was out of date; it was workmanlike and earthbound next to the high-flying Federer’s.

Rather than retire in a huff, Ferrero struggled against multiple injuries and the rise of heavier-hitting players who blended spin and power in a way that the wiry Spaniard, who is 2 inches shorter and weighs nearly 30 pounds less than both Federer and Nadal, couldn’t. So the man who was going to be king (he was named after Spain’s), the little guy who still has to construct points the old-fashioned way rather than launch missiles from anywhere, has carved out a second career as a Top 30 stalwart. Ferrero is a proud and at times prickly guy. But rather than let his pride keep from accepting his diminished status, he used it to do the best he could with what he had.

For evidence, look no farther than his match with Petzschner today. Despite being down two sets and an early break in the third, and then going down 1-4 in the fifth, Ferrero said he never felt out of it. Part of this can be explained by his newfound confidence, but part of it also must have been due to the person he was playing. When people around tennis talk about Petzschner, the discussion inevitably goes something like this:

“So talented.”

“Yeah, jesus, really talented.”

Then both parties look down and give a collectively mournful shake of the head. The testily eccentric German—is there a German player who doesn't answer to that description?—can’t get out of his own way. His serve is like a pistol crack, he can put a forehand past anyone, and his sideswiped down the line slice is nasty and lovely in equal measures. But Ferrero was right to stay calm, because Petzschner found a way to lose every lead he had. Late in the fifth, as the glue was starting to crack, he made a joke that no one seemed to understand. Then he sarcastically berated himself for it: “Oh, that’s really funny.” When he was broken at 4-2 in the fifth, Petzschner lifted his racquet head close to his face and screamed into the strings as if they were alive. Alive and conspiring against Philipp Petzschner.

Knowing these tendencies, Ferrero could afford to stick with a losing game. He said afterward that he hadn’t become more aggressive or tried to change his tactics at all; he just stopped rushing, which eventually made him more patient and consistent. But I walked away thinking that JC had sold himself short. There had also been a refuse-to-lose quality to Ferrero’s performance that has been lacking on many occasions in the past. On one big point, he made a great stab save. On another, the normally quiet JC went from grunts to all-out barnyard noises as the rally lengthened. At 4-4, the proud man even threw dignity to the wind and dove for a ball. But Ferrero was right back up and, after the changeover, ready for a final forehand, which he sent up the line for a winner and the match.

Three or four years ago I watched Ferrero get blown out in a first set on the Grandstand. He walked over to the sideline, dropped his racquet, and stared at his entourage—which included one of the more beautiful GOPs ("girlfriend of player") of the time—as if he were about to cry. Today, in the same situation, he walked to the sideline, dropped his racquet, and looked at his entourage—which included a different but similarly beautiful GOP—with nothing more than a wry shake of his head. It was the same wry shake that he made when finally won the match. Juan Carlos, the man who won’t be king, is OK with having to dig.


Posted by rafadoc 09/04/2009 at 06:40 PM

Thanks for writing about JCF Steve. I think he got a confidence boost winning the deciding Davus Cup rubber for Spain this year too. That was awesome.

Posted by rafadoc 09/04/2009 at 06:47 PM

^^That would be Davis Cup, not Davus Cup, when Spain beat Germany.

Posted by Andrew Friedman 09/04/2009 at 06:49 PM

Awesome stuff, Steve. Was bummed to have missed this match today, now I feel like I was there...

Posted by pogiako 09/04/2009 at 06:56 PM

i wish Juan Carlos good Luck!

Posted by annove 09/04/2009 at 07:05 PM

That was awesome to read Steve! I often wondered about JCF, I remembered his name from the past but didn't really follow tennis as closely back then as I have been of late, so I couldn't really appreciate his journey. Still I was curious about his perspective/attitude on having to eek your way up after you have been at the top. This was an intriguing analysis. Good read Petzschner, who I saw beat Verdasco in Halle. In that match Verdasco was playing so poorly, that even Petzschner couldn't lose that one, believe me, he tried!!

Posted by Sher 09/04/2009 at 07:51 PM

Thanks for the good article Steve!

Posted by ladyjulia 09/04/2009 at 08:18 PM

gr8 article!

In 2003, who knew what was coming?

Posted by darthhelmethead 09/04/2009 at 08:20 PM

Love hearing about JCF, one of those fallen stars of an earlier era. He had the misfortune of having his strengths become the norm in a game that featured bigger and better athletes; see C for Courier. But the guy has that winning quality about him just like the greats of the game that he almost joined. He did beat Rafa last year in Rome, blisters or no blisters Darren Cahill says he earned that win.

Posted by Andy C 09/04/2009 at 09:08 PM

This is a great piece. Whenever I look at the Grand Slam draws, I pause a moment at JCF's name and wonder, "What's his story these days?" Then I get caught up in the rest of the draw's dramas and forget about him.

You don't say so in the piece, but I'm wondering if the transition from World's Greatest (however short-lived the title) to contentment in the top 30 is pretty much unheard of in tennis . . . or any high-profile endeavor. Would Bill Clinton or George Bush run for congress after 8 years in the White House? JCF's reinvention seems to be the mark of an independent thinker.


Posted by crazyone 09/04/2009 at 09:14 PM

I watched this match, was cheering for Petzschner--pretty heartbroken he wasn't able to win, but that was mostly his fault. As soon as he started to miss, he got down on himself and let himself back into the match. Of course, JCF tightened up his game and made fewer UFE, but still, Petzschner just started making horrid UFE on his own service games (needless double faults, stoning easy volleys, sending slices wide) and looked less dialed in on JCF's service games.

*and his sideswiped down the line slice is nasty and lovely in equal measures*

I've seen Petzschner play in person, but that day he only used the CC slice (which was so beautiful I spent much of the match trying to capture it on camera)--but the down the line shot that I saw him use several times today is honestly one of the loveliest shots in tennis. You think it's going out, and then it just curves in at the last moment into the corner.

I didn't know he had a reputation as a talent...waster, but it's definitely true based on what I've seen of him recently. That slice is one of the best in the business, and it's not like every male player has a good slice.

Posted by skip1515 09/04/2009 at 10:07 PM

Ferrero's forgotten nickname, The Mosquito, explains his stinging, but lightweight game in as brief a way as possible and it came to be overwhelmed by the tsunami of bigger hitters who arrived 3 nanoseconds after his ascent.

Regardless, it's wonderful to watch someone reestablish themselves when we all know how much easier it would be for them to fade away. And so, once again, sport gives us hope about how we might live our lives if we accept the burden of the effort.

Posted by Eddy 09/04/2009 at 11:31 PM

beautiful stuff as usual. i appreciate because i don't watch most of the watches, and yet get it beautifully and expertly broken down here.

Posted by Andrew Miller 09/05/2009 at 12:03 AM

Another excellent post, I really enjoyed this. This is the first positive post I have seen about Ferrero for some time, and it is the best.

Posted by Gillian 09/05/2009 at 12:29 AM

Steve, many thanks for writing about JCF. He's always been one of my favorites. As I followed his match against Petzschner on the online scoreboard, a big grin crept across my face. JC fought hard for this one and I couldn't be prouder of him and his effort.

Posted by Codge 09/05/2009 at 12:36 AM

Past two weeks of post have been excellent!

Posted by athanguy 09/05/2009 at 01:17 AM

I agree that Hingis's game was not of power but to call it beaten to the dust by Williams is inaccurate.

Hingis has a winning record againts Venus and even dealt her a defeat during her short comeback.

Hingis has a 10-11 record againts Serena. Not even Venus can match Serena that way.

Even during early 2000's when Hingis hasn't been winning GS's she has been beating the Williams. In fact before even Justine did it, it was her who first defeated the Williamses back-to-back in a slam.

Did Ferrero do that againts Nadal and Federer during the reign of the 2?

So please, don;t liken Ferrero to Hingis.

It's a lot different. ANd you blog is inaccurate.

Poor article indeed.

Posted by mcakron 09/05/2009 at 03:31 AM

"Here was the guy who could finally unite clay and hard court tennis."

Hmmmm ... I thought Wilander and Lendl did that pretty effectively back in the '80s.

Also have to agree with athanguy. Don't know if Hingis was exactly crushed to bits and driven out of the game by the Williamses. It makes for an easy narrative, and there might even be a kernel of the truth given the sisters' power, but it's probably far from a 100% accurate. Kinda reminds me of the Borg-was-driven-from-the-game-by-McEnroe argument.

Anway, enjoyable to read about the Skeeter. Like Hewitt, he's still capable of making a little noise.

Posted by reckoner 09/05/2009 at 04:00 AM

mesquite-O !

Posted by SimilarTheme 09/05/2009 at 04:00 AM

Why is this Tignor guy so obsessed with height? Ferrero's about as physically strong as Federer, et al...he stopped being no.1 because he lost some matches and others won some matches. There was no physical "tidal wave" of players who magically grew bigger than the "little guy" (who is about five inches taller than the average male)

Give me a freaking break do you want NBA players to take over tennis already, because you certainly have a ****-on for Goliaths.

Posted by Madhatter 09/05/2009 at 05:16 AM

Interestingly enough, Ferrero is the only player in the 125-player-draw who has won a match against Federer at the USO. I guess if Roger gets to the final, he wouldn't want to see the Mosquito there, lol. Or, maybe he'd like to avenge that loss. So, yeah, lets have that throwback final that surprisingly hasn't happened during Ferrero's ascendancy. Now, lets see how the commies handle the alliteration - Federer/Ferrero.

Posted by nica 09/05/2009 at 09:38 AM

It's nice to find a more nuanced piece in the middle of AP-like slugs. Nice job.

Posted by djatns 09/05/2009 at 10:21 AM

yeah, jcf.... patience is a virtue that comes thru for him.

Posted by Cesar 09/05/2009 at 11:09 AM

Thank you, Steve great piece, if you don´t mind with the intention of sharing, I paste this link of a spanish article about The rebuilt of JC Ferrero. by Juan Jose Mateo in El Pais, the last Wimbledom.
A brief resume
The Valencian tennis player put in experts' hands of the University of Elche and trained five daily hours to repare his injuries and to recover his level of game. Psychology, fitness, diet, relaxation, breathing and a big word SACRIFICE.

Posted by M-life 09/05/2009 at 04:46 PM

Really nice piece Steve. I always liked J.C. Ferrero. I didn't know that he could be prickly or sour, I always thought he was a pretty classy guy and a very fine player. Yes his game was surpassed, but I think when he does leave the sport he will be under-appreciated much like Leyton Heywit will be. So it is nice that you write of him as a reminder and perhaps a measure of appreciation as he plays out his Golden years of his career.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 09/05/2009 at 05:33 PM

Good points by Athanguy at 1:17 a.m. and mcakron at 3:31 a.m.

Additionally, neither Federer nor Nadal are around 30 pounds heavier than Ferrero. More like 15-20 lbs.

And the title, " . . . Won't be King," is somewhat misleading. He WAS the No. 1, if only shortly. He WAS the "King of Clay" for an even longer period of time. And he WAS the leading player for Spain when Spain won its first Davis Cup.

Posted by robert 09/05/2009 at 08:38 PM

Another miss in this blog: JCF was not sidelined by injuries nor by new batch of physically stronger players, but by illness. He got a bad case of chicken pox which sapped his strength and he never fully recovered from it. His recent return into some kind of form is nothing short of a miracle.

Poor research and lame wordplay on Juan Carlos, the first name of this tennis player and of the Spain's ruling monarch. As pointed before, JCF was the king of tennis for a while. Surprisingly bad from Steve.

Posted by felizjulianidad 09/06/2009 at 12:55 AM

I've followed JCF's career with some interest - it has to do with him being Valencian (guess where my family's from, then). I caught him just after his peak, which was somewhere along those gruelling five-setters against Agassi and Hewitt in the 2003 US Open. Back then, those two names were ones that made any tennis fan nervous - they seemed indestructible (Hewitt, especially, because of his tenacity). By the time Ferrero reached the final against Roddick, he was toast (a 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 bludgeoning for Roddick)- and that ended up being the GS final for two one-slam wonders. What struck me the most about Ferrero in that match was his defeatist attitude - Roddick had broken him in the final set and was set to serve out the match, and Ferrero didn't even bother trying to return serve. He got into "position" but hardly blinked as Roddick fired aces past him - there was this infuriating, submissive dejectedness that struck me as unacceptable in a GS final, especially for such a young player who had just reached the world number one ranking. The trophy ceremony was also an embarassing - Ferrero claiming he was too tired to put up a contest, and the American hosts hardly mentioning Ferrero's rise to number one and his trouncing of Hewitt and Agassi. Since then, I don't think Ferrero's ever been able to handle Roddick at all - Roddick has his number so many ways to Sunday that he'd probably win on clay too.

It's never been easy to be a JCF supporter. He seemed to perform reasonably well in the AO 2004, until Federer demolished him in the SFs. Then he caught the measles or chicken pox (I forget which, but it was something almost terrifyingly archaic) and destroyed one of his abductors - that wiped him out, and since then, he's never been able to crack the Top 10 again, despite a few flashes of brilliance. He hovered close to breaking into the elite for a few years - in 2006 he outplayed Nadal in one of the US summer MS events, knocking out plenty of seeds before encountering his own particular nightmare in the final: Roddick, who once again had a field day with aces left, right and center. In 2007, as the 17th seed, he was the only person to scratch a set off Federer at Wimbledon (QF, 7-6 with Federer getting bailed out by a rain delay as he was getting outplayed, 3-6, and the last two sets were a butchering) before the five-setter against Nadal in the final. Just as it seemed that he was returning to his competitive ways, he pulled a massive brain fart that saw him stumble around for the rest of 2007. 2008 also had a promising beginning - he reached the final in Brisbane, and absolutely thrashed David Nalbandián (back then, everyone was hopeful for the Cordobese-Argentine, as he had just given the world number one, two and three some serious tennis lessons in Madrid and Paris). Ferrero was happy - he has finally serving consistently above 200 km/h, he felt strong, he felt light, he felt competitive - and he felt another defeat, as David Ferrer outgrinded and outbashed him in the 4th round of the AO. His career basically fell off a cliff in 2008 and then went underground in early 2009 - he lost in 4 sets to Santoro at the AO, and he looked borderline bulimic. "It's hard to find the motivation to keep going," he said after embarassing himself - 2009 could possibly the year when TWO former world number ones retired (everyone knows who the other is - coincidentally, MSafin also trained in Valencia).

I watched his finals match in Casablanca this year - it was one of the least competitive tournaments he's played in, but given that he was considering retirement, I think he really just needed to notch one last trophy. It gave me high hopes for the remainder of his clay season, but that was again mediocre for a former two-time FO finalist (and one-time champ).

Surprisingly, he pulled his game together again for grass. An SF at a Wimbledon tune-up (weapon-less against Murray) and then a run to the QF (knocking out Fernando González and Gilles Simon along the way) before again having his colors exposed by Murray.

Now at the USO, I am tentatively confident that he can once again defeat Gilles Simon before setting up a likely loss against JMDP in the 4th round. If he wins, he'll likely encounter Murray AGAIN - hopefully third time marks the charm, and Ferrero shows that he has some learning ability. If not, I think we're all familiar with Darwin's postulates - if Ferrero can't adapt, then he'll go the way of the dodo.

And yes, Steve is correct that he is prickly and sour. He cancels out of matches when he's not playing well, he's particularly defeatist when he has to play big servers, he whinged incessantly about "not being able to enjoy a Top 20 rank when you've been number one", and talking up his own competitiveness too much ("I'm a winning sort of guy - I didn't come here to win a set, I came to win the match" when asked if he took some consolation at being the first player to scratch a set off Federer in W 2007) without backing it up (watch his knees quiver and his testicles shrink whenever he encounters Roddick).

It's a pity, because he plays an appealing brand of tennis, but he's maddeningly petulant and unreliable.

Oh well. Amunt Valencia.

Posted by Jerell 09/06/2009 at 02:10 AM

Well, against Serena on her day, Hingis was driven out of the game by them.(see 2002 semifinal against Serena at the US Open).

And even if she beat Venus in her comeback, that was on clay and Venus is just as erratic now as she is clinical, especially on clay.

By then, the rest of the power players developed, and Hingis, before the drug test and all, was already on the brink.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 09/06/2009 at 04:48 AM

Hingis wasn't driven out by the Williams Sisters or other bigger ball bashers.

Her first retirement was largely brought about by a serious ankle injuries, requiring operations to both ankles, in addition to additional foot problems.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 09/06/2009 at 04:57 AM

felizjulianidad, 12:55,

That's a very harsh assessment of juanqui, and probably largely accurate.

That, someone with Juanqui's talent went five years without one title, anywhere, is an indictment of Juanqui's attitude, which has too often been flaky.

In any case, there have been many highlights in his career, including those in Davis Cup. As someone who was cheering Spanish Davis Cup teams, going back to the mid-1960s, I was very relieved when Juanqui was able to play a crucial role in bringing Spain its first Davis Cup.

Thanks for the detail of your post.

Posted by felizjulianidad 09/06/2009 at 05:51 AM

manuelsantanafan, thank you for your insightful comments.

I must admit I'm a huge fan of Juanqui, largely for his tennis (and I'm partial to the tennis played by my countrymen), but also for some more whimsical reasons: he's from Valencia, he speaks good Valencian, etc.

And I don't hold it against him that he gets scared of playing Roddick - I'd be terrified to even attempt to return a serve like that - it might just snap my wrist (and I've had my stints of serious rock climbing and bouldering). It's the lack of fighting spirit in Juanqui that drives me nuts; occasionally, also, I find that for a player with as many technical skills as he was, he's remarkably unimaginative (why does Andy Murray beat him so easily?).

If he hadn't fallen sick in 2004, I think he could've stayed in the Top 5 for at least another year. But by 2005, Nadal had appeared, and a new era would take over in clay.

Posted by athanguy 09/06/2009 at 05:54 AM

LOL... even in tennis club debates, I cannot remain quiet whenever people characterize the transition of power (as in queeship at the tops of the women's game) as "Hingis's tactical game driven out by the Williamses's power game" because that is not just accurate but also a lazy way to reach a historical description...

I cannot blame them , as one poster said who doesn;t want a good narrative...

I would like to refresh everyone's memory...

It was Capriati, not any of the Williamses who deprived Hingis of her two Australian Open championships 2001 and 2002.

It was Hingis and her attitude that deprived her of a career slam in 1999 French Open.

If not for Capriati and herself, with 8 slams, you would not be calling Hingis a driven-away champ... I bet.

Let us all be fact-based when we write something OK? Specially about somebody's career.

I am not taking away anything from Williamses. They deserve their legacies.

But please let us not degrade Hingis' legacy for their sake.

And again, I always mention this, i believe, even more than Justine's, Hingis's game is really beautiful....awesome to behold.

Posted by princepro110 09/06/2009 at 09:25 AM

Please give me a wake up call when Ferrero is gone............

Posted by princepro110 09/06/2009 at 10:23 AM

Media obversations:

Loved your comment today about Michael Barkann! Pam Shriver has improved on her past brutal performances but as Lloyd Bentsen would say.........YOUR NO MICHAEL BARKANN!!

I really think having the two Macs in the booth solo is a big mistake.........they function better when away from each other......where is Al T. when you need him. I miss the USA Network!

I think the USTA may want to revise its thinking on ESPN/Tennis Channel coverage over Labor Day. Saturday/Sunday evening only on Tennis Channel????? I bet they lost 30% of fans that would normally watch the USO because USA Network is free on most cable packages where Tennis Channel is not. Iam staying in Manhattan and the hotel I am at has 100+ Time Warner channels but no Tennis Channel!

Posted by michele 09/06/2009 at 03:15 PM

Finally a worthy piece on JC! He remains my second favorite tennis player on the tour and I always root for him and follow his progress even though his matches rarely get air time. Plus, he's hot. Next time, leave out the reference to his beautiful girlfriend :)

Posted by Allen 09/08/2009 at 04:08 PM

GOP? Rankings may drop, but once you've made it to the top once...

Posted by reggie 09/10/2009 at 09:55 AM

Steve, Love to read your observations and writing about JCF. Long time coming - finally, some great tennis writer has devoted an article to JCF with very justified points - I'm so touched! and how right you are!
For a long time, I cant really explain why I always enjoy watching him and he remains my favorite player for over a decade - despite all his ups and downs - When he plays well, he has such elegant, clean, crispy shots, very pleasant to watch, and his on court manners exhibit in every way great sportsmanship - now you point it out for me - it's also the quiet elegance and pride in his play that charms and attracts your admiration. I love watching JCF, and I would like him to be consistently strong mentally to overcome his apparent weakest against big servers. His ability to serve - like he beat Hewitt and Agassi in 2003 US Open - could be a great weapon - when he is confident and mentally strong! Love to watch his latest interviews in US Open - a calm, mature attitude, still charming as ever! Twice been to QF of Wimbledon and twice won the winning rubber for Spain in Davis Cup, he has won big time, if he keeps his confidence! Vamos JCF!
My greatest wish is he can hit a high note again before he finally quits.
Thanks Steve - your passion for tennis, your observations of genuinely good players make you the one of the greatest tennis writers of all!
Would love to read more from you about Juan Carlos - once he was crowned prince, king of clay, national sportsman of Spain, he is still a very endearing elegant cool tennis player on court and yet passionate enough to play for his country whenever in need - he deserves all the respects for his his worths! Indeed he has his fatal weaknesses that unfortunately shorten his time at the top but he has not given up yet! To play quallies! That takes great courage! This must be LOVE!

Posted by kim curtis 11/04/2009 at 10:42 PM

juan is hot.

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