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Steve Flink: Ferrero Turns Back The Clock

9/2/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The life span of an athlete is painfully short. With few exceptions, they propel themselves forward over their late teens, peak during their twenties, and fade away into virtual oblivion across their thirties. That is the harsh reality for these fragile performers. They never know what is in store for them. They can be fit, confident and full of optimism when they are at the height of their powers, only to fall into disarray and lose faith in themselves not long after. For tennis players, the task of enduring is even more complicated and daunting because they have no teammates to bail them out. I have long believed that tennis is essentially a contact sport, and the physical demands of the game have gone to a new level in recent years as rallies get longer and considerably more strenuous, and bodies get battered by the process.

That is why I found it so heartwarming yesterday when a 31-year-old warrior from Spain who once resided at No. 1 in the world toppled the No. 7 seed at Flushing Meadows with as comprehensive a performance as he has given in a long while. Juan Carlos Ferrero—industrious, indefatigable, enterprising and tactically masterful—defeated the charismatic Gael Monfils in five tumultuous sets, across four hours and 48 minutes, through a long afternoon of highly entertaining tennis. Ferrero was victorious 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, and the way I saw it the Spaniard went out and won that match with immense heart, sound ball striking, and admirable resourcefulness. Monfils did not lose this contest despite 81 unforced errors and occasional moments of impetuosity. The Spaniard won this contest with his heart and the soundness of his execution. The Frenchman was simply outplayed and outmaneuvered by an old and wily veteran now ranked No. 105 in the world who revisited his heyday and played as if it was 2003 all over again.

In that spectacular season eight years ago, Ferrero captured the French Open title, reached the U.S. Open final before losing to Andy Roddick, and was rewarded for his commendable professionalism by moving to No. 1 after his productive fortnight in New York. Ferrero had already finished 2002 at No. 4 in the world, and he would conclude 2003 at No. 3 behind none other than Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. He was only 23 then, and there seemed to be no good reason why he would not flourish as a top of the line competitor for many years to come.

And yet, that did not happen. By the end of 2004, Ferrero had dropped to No. 31 in the world. He was back in the top twenty the next year, but thereafter this frequently injured player was largely forgotten as he spent most of a six year stretch mired in difficulties on the court and ranked for the most part between 20 and 30 in the world. To be sure, Ferrero was resurgent at times, including a span in early 2010 when he secured three titles on clay, winning 14 matches in a row. But the fact remains that Ferrero no longer seemed capable of bringing out his best on the biggest occasions. After he made it to the semifinals of the 2004 Australian Open, the Spaniard seldom advanced far at the majors. Only twice between 2005 and 2010 did he make it to the quarterfinals, reaching the last eight at Wimbledon in both 2007 and 2009.

Meanwhile, his body betrayed him too many times. At the start of 2011, he was in the worst of shape after surgeries on his left knee and right wrist. He did not start competing in tournaments this year until April, and his match record coming into his showdown with Monfils was 12-6. Knowing all of that, realizing that Ferrero had been beset by so many problems across the years, I believed his chances of overcoming Monfils yesterday on Louis Armstrong Stadium were not very good. I figured he might be good for a set, but did not think he could stay with Monfils over the course of a grueling confrontation over the best of five sets. I’m delighted to concede that I was absolutely wrong. I underestimated the size of his heart and the scope of his ambitions.

The tennis in this clash out on Armstrong was terrific from the outset until the very end. Monfils and Ferrero produced rallies that were breathtaking, leaving the fans gasping in deep appreciation, tearing repeatedly at the fabric of their emotions. The spectators cheered vociferously for both players, admiring the astonishing athleticism of Monfils, saluting the ball control and strategic acumen of Ferrero, watching it all with a sense of awe for the durability and spirit of the two competitors. In the opening set, Ferrero prevailed in a tie-break which was decided ultimately by two fatal mistakes from Monfils, who double faulted on the first and last points to lose that sequence 7-5. Monfils retaliated to capture a hard fought second set 7-5 after trailing 0-2, and then both men held all the way through a well played third set.

Often in a match of this kind, the third set is pivotal, and that seemed to be the case when Monfils secured another tense tie-break to move out in front two sets to one. That tie-break was locked at 5-5 when Monfils released an excellent second serve wide to Ferrero’s forehand. Ferrero could not handle that arduous return. Serving at 5-6 and set point down, Ferrero was controlling the rally but Monfils answered with his mind boggling speed. Trying to do too much, Ferrero steered a forehand drop shot wide. Monfils had taken the tie-break 7-5, and the momentum was clearly on his side.

But Ferrero was not spent, and he knew that this match-up was largely in his favor. The Spaniard’s pattern of play was working consistently against Monfils. Ferrero was directing his penetrating forehand crosscourt with good depth and some great angles, drawing Monfils wide on that side with great success, preventing the Frenchman from setting up to hit his preferred inside-out forehand that can be such a damaging shot. As he was pulled time and again off the court, Monfils was forced to go for almost impossible forehand down the line winners. To his chagrin, he missed that shot repeatedly; it was like a recurring nightmare for the Frenchman, who was celebrating his 25th birthday.

In any event, perhaps the key moment of the match was the seventh game of the fourth set. At 3-3, Monfils moved to 40-15, but then double faulted. On the next point, he failed to put away a high backhand volley and the fleet-footed Spaniard connected with a sparkling backhand pass on the run into a wide open space. Ferrero soon had the break for 4-3. Serving for the set at 5-4, Ferrero was down break point, but he boldly went for a crosscourt winner off the forehand, clipping the sideline. Two points later, he sealed the set with a nicely struck backhand passing shot that he kept exceedingly low, forcing Monfils to punch a backhand volley long.

It was two sets all, and already the two gladiators had been out in the arena for over four hours. But it was Ferrero who sensed that this might be his biggest day in many a year. In the first game of the final set, Monfils served at 30-40. Ferrero was trapped well behind the baseline, and forced to throw up a high defensive lob. He really had no alternative. Monfils retreated for what looked like a routine overhead, but his smash travelled well beyond the baseline. Ferrero was right where he wanted to be, up a break in the fifth set, believing fully in himself and his chances.

To his credit, Monfils kept fighting despite considerable emotional and physical fatigue. After Ferrero held for 2-0 in the fifth set, Monfils was in a desperate plight at 15-40, in danger of going two service breaks down. He wiped away those two break points emphatically with a scorching forehand winner up the line followed by an ace out wide in the Ad court. Ferrero held easily for 3-1 and then had two more break points in the fifth game. Once more, Monfils held his ground obstinately, producing a second serve ace down the T that clipped the center service line, and saving a second break point with a swing volley winner. Monfils held on gamely for 2-3 with a thundering 125 MPH ace out wide, but Ferrero remained unswerving, holding at love for 4-2.

Both players were competing with full intensity and purpose, but Ferrero maintained the upper hand. When the players walked back on court after the last changeover, just before Ferrero served for the match, the fans gave both men a thoroughly deserved standing ovation. Ferrero had not enjoyed a moment like this in what must have seemed like ages, and he fittingly basked in the glory of a long lost time in his life. At 5-4, 30-0, he served an ace, and soon he held at love to complete a five set triumph. Juan Carlos Ferrero had not only removed a tough adversary in Gael Monfils, but he had reminded himself and all of us that he is one of the best players ever to emerge from his nation.

To be sure, Rafael Nadal has established himself indisputably at the finest player ever from Spain. Manuel Santana won four majors in the 1960’s, and he ranks behind Nadal as the second greatest Spaniard ever to step on a court.  After Santana, the two leading Spanish players were Andres Gimeno (the 1972 French Open champion), and Manuel Orantes, the U.S. Open victor in 1975. But Ferrero is up there with former French Open champion Carlos Moya among the elite. It had been too long since we had seen him play the brand of inspirational tennis he summoned yesterday against Monfils. He will take on compatriot Marcel Granollers in the third round, but it really doesn’t matter if he wins or loses that match. When this fortnight is over, Ferrero’s skirmish with Monfils will live on irrevocably in our hearts and minds.

At 31, Ferrero was a revitalized man, a player back on a big stage, a champion turning back the clock and recovering his youth. In the first week of the last major of 2011, I will celebrate Ferrero more than anything or anyone else.

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