Report from Melbourne: The Imperfectionist

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MELBOURNE—Most of the time, it's easy to tell if someone has just won or lost a point. Even if you didn’t see what happened, there’s a subtle sign in the player's face or stride that tells you whether they’re pleased or annoyed by the result. 

So last week, when I glanced up at my press-room TV and saw David Ferrer walking confidently to the sideline, with his towel between his teeth, I assumed that he had just won a game from his first-round opponent, Olivier Rochus. Compared to Ferru, the Belgian looked like a broken man as he slowly made his way off the court, still trying to catch his breath. Yet, as I learned from the scoreboard a few seconds later, it was Rochus who had just held serve.

From that scene you can get a pretty good idea of what’s it like to have David Ferrer across the net from you. Even if you’re winning the battle, it seems, there’s a good chance you’re losing the war. That must have been how Ferrer’s opponent in Rod Laver Arena today, Kei Nishikori, felt at a certain point. Nishikori came out firing; he whipped forehands and backhands into the corners and had the Spaniard in full scramble. Nishikori had upset Ferrer at the Olympics last summer, and the confidence from that win still seemed to be flowing through him.

But it’s not enough to hit Ferrer with body blows, it’s not enough to stagger him. You must knock him out with winners, again and again and again. Nishikori, for all of his early brilliance, couldn’t forge a lead. After a grueling 30 minutes, Kei had been, by most measures, the better player; after 30 minutes, he was also down 1-4. He had thrown everything he had at Ferrer, yet the man variously known as the Little Beast, the Wall, and the Cat was still over there bouncing back and forth as he waited to receive serve, eager to get his teeth into the next point.

An hour and 40 minutes later, Ferrer was into the quarters, where he'll face countryman Nicolas Almagro. He'll be the favorite to reach his second semifinal here. 

With the win, Ferrer also rises to No. 4 in the rankings. (As this team player was quick to point out, he reached that career-high because his friend Rafael Nadal has been unable to play for six months—“It’s the true, no?” Ferrer said, apparently channeling Rafa.)

How has he done it? Ferrer is obviously fit and consistent. As horribly cliched as it’s become, “dogged” is still the most apt description of him. And the one nickname that he does approve of, Ferru, a word related to iron, is an appropriate one. But he’s also 30 years old, he’s not tall, he doesn’t hit the ball all that hard or all that deep. And he’s not known as a mental giant. Ferrer has struggled over the years in the pressure cooker of the tiebreaker. 

Ferrer chalks up his slow-but-steady improvement to experience, to being 30, to “playing a lot of years of tennis.” 

“I am more quiet with myself, no?” he said today—“quiet” meaning calm. “This is very important to me.” 

This is the virtuous cycle that every tennis player hopes takes hold at some point. Winning breeds confidence, which breeds more winning, which breeds more confidence, and so on and so on until, if you’re Roger Federer, you’ve been No. 1 in the world for 300 weeks.

But listening to Ferrer in his pressers and post-match interviews in Melbourne, another reason for his success starts to become clear. He’s one of the very few athletes I’ve seen who has sealed himself off from expectations, both the public’s and his own.

After his first match, Ferrer was asked if his goals had changed as his ranking had risen. He took a breath, leaned forward, and began tapping the front of the interview stand for emphasis. It wasn’t an aggressive gesture, exactly, but still a surprising one for this shy man. His words were just as firm.

“In my career,” he said, “I only focus on the next match. That’s the way it will be for the rest of my career.”

He raised his voice a little. “I never think about the semis or the quarters, never.”

These words were hard to misinterpret, but Ferrer has faced the same question in all of his interviews since. Today’s version went like this:

Q:  You’re consistently getting to this stage of Grand Slam tournaments. What do you need to do to progress even further?

David Ferrer: I don’t know. Now I want to focus on my next match. Is very difficult to win a Grand Slam because there are the top four....But, you know, I am not thinking about if I have the chance to win a Grand Slam. I am only focused [on] every match I play.”

As of today, with his new ranking, Ferrer’s talk of a Top 4 that’s above and beyond him sounds a little strange. But he seemed oblivious to the irony. Asked if felt like he belonged in that group, the new world No. 4 said without hesitation, “No, no, I think the Top 4, they are better.”

There’s no question that Ferrer means all of this, and that continued success likely won’t change him. He’s won a Masters event and is a highly decorated Davis Cup soldier, yet those things haven’t affected his ego. Ferrer is, ironically, lucky that he found success late. His working stiff worldview is cemented in him. Unlike many of his colleagues, he also knows how lucky he is to do what he does for a living. When he was young, Ferrer briefly quit the game and took a construction job. Playing tennis suddenly didn’t seem like such a bad deal.

But if he’s ever going to have a chance of moving up farther, isn’t he going to have to ask a little more from himself, to grow a bigger ego? Ferrer shrugged off that suggestion today, sticking with his one-day-at-a-time philosophy. 

“I am trying to do my best in every match,” he said. “I am trying to win every match anyway, top four, top 10, or top 100.”

It’s a conundrum: If Ferrer starts to expect more from himself, he could get more frustrated when he doesn’t live up to his own standards, the way highly talented pros typically do. After his second-round match, in which he dropped a set to Tim Smyczek, a qualifier, Ferrer was asked if he was unhappy with the way he had played. He waved that question away, too. "No, no," he said, "every match is so hard, and every player is so good, I'm just happy to win." Ferrer understands the practical value of not being a perfectionist.

Today it was easy to see why Ferrer approaches the sport the way he does. The simplicity and sense of self-contained purpose it gives him is an athlete’s dream. You could see it in the way he built points aggressively, but without attempting shots that were beyond him. One thing that separates Ferrer from others is his ability to attack while remaining as consistent as he is when he’s simply rallying. 

You could see it in the way he went from point to point, without angst or delay or doubt. When he got angry, which he did in the third set, Ferrer yelled, kicked a chair at the back of the court, and got back to business. (Ferru is not above a self-lacerating tirade when things aren't going his way.) 

You could see it most of all in the way Ferrer walked to the sidelines, with a towel between his teeth and a grimace on his face, thinking about nothing more, and nothing less, than the game ahead.

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