David Ferrer crashed out of the 2014 Australian open in the Quarterfinals, losing to Thomas Berdych 6-1, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, in a match that he seemed overwhelmed at most parts by the imposing Czech. Ferrer’s loss highlights all of the negative aspects of his game and only serves to reinforce that his ranking of no.3 in the world is laughable considering the other talent that exists at the top of men’s tennis.
This is not to say that Ferrer is a bad player, just that he is relatively bad compares to other no.3 players in history and his peers in the top 10. Ferrer has many strengths in his game, chiefly his consistency. You rarely see a match in which he makes multiple unforced errors. As a Spaniard, Ferrer grew up playing on clay courts, and his game bears all the hallmarks of a great clay court player. Both his backhand and forehand are accurate and have hard topspin giving him consistent, almost metronomic groundstrokes off both wings. He couples these with supreme fitness, exemplary footwork and extremely quick lateral motion ability. Additionally he is among the best returners in Tennis. This gives him the ability to play world class defence and extend rallies, wherein he can turn his defence to offense, wearing out his opponents and pressuring them into making mistakes. This play style makes Ferrer one of the game’s best grinders, an endurance and precision machine that will contest every ball and wear down opponents in a war of attrition.
However, his game has many flaws. He stands only 1.75 meters, a full 8 cm shorter than the next shortest player in the top 10. The only other player to have been a fixture in the top 10 near Ferrer’s height was Nikolay Davydenko, who had a similar grinding play style to Ferrer. Partially due to his height, Ferrer’s serve is one of the weakest parts of his game. This was highlighted in his quarterfinal match where his average first serve speed was only 167 KPH, a full 27 KPH slower than Berdych. Ferrer only managed to win 64% of first serve point s, a number that just is not enough to guarantee a win. A big part of this relates again to Ferrer’s size. In the same way that he cannot generate huge pace with his serve, he is similarly limited in his groundstrokes. At the pro level, all players have essentially maximized their physical abilities, but the constraints of a smaller body limit power. After all, longer arms create longer levers which lead to the production of power. Ferrer is not given this luxury and therefore has to compensate through superior fitness and point construction. By playing smart and setting up his opponents with good tactics, Ferrer is able to create winners and win matches.
This is what limits him however. All of Ferrer’s greatest skills, his point construction, fitness, return game and defensive drive are all skills that the game’s other elite players also possess. The difference is that each of these other players also possess a weapon in their games that Ferrer cannot match. Rafael Nadal possesses superior defensive skills and can generate offense through defence thanks to his massive topspin. Novak Djokovic possesses a superior serve, more powerful groundstrokes and is the best in the game at changing the ball’s direction. Andy Murray showcases a superior serve and return game. Roger Federer possesses maybe the greatest forehand of all time and a near supernatural court-sense. Other players like Juan Martin Del Potro, Thomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, though slightly more inconsistent than Ferrer all have much more powerful games which would probably give them the edge over Ferrer despite his higher ranking.
So how does a player like Ferrer reach no.3 in the world?
There are a couple of factors involved. First of all, Andy Murray has been hurt and has seen his ranking slip. Secondly, Roger Federer has begun to show his age and has not performed to his own lofty standards. This has resulted in a mini power vacuum at the top which Ferrer has exploited. Ferrer is a classic accumulator. He plays a lot of tournaments in the calendar year, and thanks to his consistency he rarely if ever loses to a weaker opponent. In essence, he beats the players he is supposed to beat. This means that he consistently goes deep in tournaments, occasionally winning, but usually losing to a highly ranked player. This is backed up by the numbers; in his career Ferrer has a 35.3% winning percentage against top 10 players (47 wins, 86 losses).
David Ferrer might be the least imposing no. 3 in history. It is not often that a player ranked no. 3 enters grand slams with absolutely no one believing that he is a realistic competitor to win. Even Ferrer himself admits that he is ranked too highly. The only former no. 3 who comes to mind in the last decade who was as misplaced as his ranking was probably Ivan Ljubicic who reached a career high of no.3 in 2006. However, at face value alone Ljubicic, who stands at 1.93 m and possesses booming serve at least possessed the intimidation factor that Ferrer lacks.
Ferrer might be the most overrated no. 3 in tennis history, but he has made his peace with that. No one is more aware of his shortcomings than he is. He embraces his role in the tennis world as a gatekeeper, a player so consistent and so fundamentally sound that he will almost never be beaten by an inferior player. To possess the ability to beat David Ferrer is to be accepted into the echelon of tennis’ most elite players. But meanwhile Ferrer will just keep grinding along, winning by embracing his shortcoming and maximizing his talents.