Australian Open: Ferrer d. Almagro

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There are five-set matches to which you gladly sacrifice hours and that leave you exhilarated and exultant just to have watched. And then there are ones which slither to a queasily unsatisfying conclusion because, try as you might—and deserved though the victory is—it’s impossible not to dwell, with whatever emotion, on what might have been for the player who threw it all away. Step forward Nicolas Almagro, who played some brutally beautiful tennis and came agonizingly close to what would have been a career apotheosis: A first victory over David Ferrer in 13 attempts and a maiden Grand Slam semifinal. So close, in fact, that he served for it three times before losing, 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

This was Ferrer’s 500th career win and it will no doubt add to the double-edged mythos of the dogged, never-say-die Spaniard that he had to grind it out in that fashion. He didn’t play his best tennis today and looked jaded for long stretches of the match, missing the kind of finishing shots you would usually bank on him to make, perhaps as a result of being the only player left in the tournament who had played two tour events (going deep in both) coming in.

Or perhaps he was rattled by his compatriot, who for the first two sets seemed to have found the perfect balance of patience and aggression. Sacrificing a high first-serve percentage for high-risk effectiveness, Almagro was consistently the first to switch up the pattern of the rallies and attack down the lines. And while he didn’t hit that many winners off the backhand side for a five-set match, he used that shot clinically to run Ferrer all over the court and out of position, breaking serve once and serving out the first two sets.

As the third set opened, Almagro’s second serve started landing much shorter in the box, but by that point Ferrer had lost his willingness to attack on the return. After four unforced errors saw Ferrer broken to love at 3-3 and swiping furiously at the court with his racquet, it seemed that all Almagro had to do was hold his nerve to secure a huge win. It was beyond him. Serving at 5-4, he missed his down-the-line backhand, the money shot of the match so far, on consecutive points, and without that shot the opportunity was there for Ferrer to attack down the line himself to break back—then break again to love, for the set.

Ferrer should have pushed on from there, but his forehand started misfiring again, and it resulted in a break-riddled fourth set with both men unable to defend their serves effectively. Twice more Almagro had the chance to serve for the match. Twice he abandoned the game plan that had brought him to that point and started playing passively. And if Ferrer couldn’t defend his own serve, he had no problems ruthlessly exploiting the opportunities offered on his opponent’s.

It’s tempting to dwell on the pressure that Almagro made it so clear that he was feeling, but Ferrer, who will be world No. 4 after this tournament—surpassing absent compatriot Nadal in the rankings—is also facing new kinds of nerve-inducing situations. The ‘most underrated player in tennis,’ having played second fiddle for so long, is now his country’s top man and expected to make semifinals at this level. Whether that pressure got to him or not, he certainly seemed to be battling himself as well as his opponent today, kicking the chair, punching his racquet, swearing furiously.

As Almagro’s body as well as his brain started to tighten up—he received a thigh massage before his third attempt to serve for the match—the internal and external battles shifted in Ferrer’s favor. He played the braver and better tie-break, finding some of his finest shots down the line of the match, and withstood a barrage of last-ditch standing-and-swinging from Almagro in the beginning of the fifth set before breaking to lead for the first time in the match. Pushed beyond breaking point physically and mentally, Almagro gently brushed Ferrer’s knee with his racquet as they sat down at 2-5 in the fifth, a gesture of pre-emptive congratulation underpinned by an unspoken faith that Ferrer would not fail to serve the match out as he had done. His faith was well-founded.

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