Rafael Nadal racked up more career milestones in Barcelona today, lifting his seventh Real Club de Tennis trophy, but it was David Ferrer’s bloodied-and-unbowed performance which stole the show despite Rafa's 7-6 (1), 7-5 win.
The aggressive, confident Nadal we saw against Janko Tipsarevic and Fernando Verdasco did not take the court today, replaced instead by a seemingly nervous player who gave up a flurry of errors and was broken at 15 early on by an eager Ferrer. But when leading 2-0, 30-0, Ferrer gave up four consecutive unforced errors to hand the break back. It was the best chance he would have to take the initiative in the match, but by no means the last.
If Nadal seemed nervous, Ferrer gave him plenty of reason to be as the first set progressed. Generating pace from the center of the court, his forehand into the corners was on full display, along with his often underestimated returning. Ferrer also used his backhand more judiciously than I’ve ever seen before. He doesn’t have Novak Djokovic’s down-the-line backhand, but the way Ferrer changed direction off that wing today and used it to dominate from the center of the court was reminiscent of the Serb at his best. Ferrer was also frequently brilliant at net.
It could be seen as ironic or just sad that all that fantastic play on Ferrer’s part succeeded only in pushing Nadal to play better, but Nadal repeatedly came up with his simplest and most aggressive play when down break points, relying on big serves and big forehands to erase danger. After saving a break point on his own serve, Ferrer threw everything at Nadal in a marathon game at 5-6. Nadal snuffed out two set points with big forehands before Ferrer’s best chance came on the third—and went, after he put a tame backhand into the net that could have changed the whole complexion of the match. Two more set points came and went before Nadal finally held. After pushing so hard and getting nowhere, it was perhaps unsurprising that Ferrer crumbled in the tiebreak, losing it tamely, 7-1.
After the hour-and-33-minute marathon that was the first set, and the fact that Ferrer finished it empty-handed, one might have expected the second to be more straightforward. Nadal indeed broke for a 3-1 lead with his best return of the match, but Ferrer broke back when a moment of indecision caused Rafa to net the simplest of balls. Breaking to lead 5-4, Ferrer had his second big chance to grab hold of the match. But again, he couldn’t hold serve as his forehand broke down. After Nadal put in his best service game of the match, he finally mustered some real urgency and aggression on Ferrer’s serve, breaking to love and taking the match with a backhand winner.
Nadal said after the match that Ferrer played better and lost. I never find that particular formulation convincing; surely the better player in a given match is the one who finds their best tennis on the biggest points. That was Ferrer’s signal failure today, in a match where he had ample chances to at least take it to three sets; ultimately it was the margin with which Nadal scored his fourteenth career victory over his compatriot.