A Masterpiece of Intransigence

Monday, April 01, 2013 /by

MIAMI, Fla.—In a grand and ruthless championship match brimful of ironies, this one loomed above all the others, and above all else: David Ferrer, a player known first and foremost for never, ever giving up on a point, gave up on one against Andy Murray today.

It was a match point, and quitting mid-point to challenge a Murray forehand that was then shown to clip the line was the final—and definitive—turning point of this final, and the unexpected plot turn that left a bitter aftertaste in mouth of Ferrer, the ultimate resistance fighter who had turned the match into his masterpiece of intransigence.

That point, one of the innumerable, spirited rallies this afternoon, rekindled Murray’s hopes and provided him with enough emotional and physical fuel to hold serve (the next and final two points of the game were errors by a justifiably distracted Ferrer). Murray went on to dominate Ferrer, who was hobbled and cramping, in the ensuing tiebreaker. The final score of this two-hour, 44-minute epic was 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1).

“Now I don’t want to think nothing,” Ferrer said when it was all over, sounding wounded. “I choose my decision (to challenge) in that moment. It’s a bad moment no? I don’t want to think about it now. I want to forget it as fast as possible. Now I am sad, of course.”

There’s only one thing more predictable than Ferrer’s ability to dominate all the players ranked below him, and that’s his inability to punch against those ranked above him. Embarking on this match, Ferrer was a disappointing 0-12 for his career in finals against players in the Top 5.

In Murray, though, Ferrer met not only the junior member of tennis’ Big Four, but also the one most likely to allow him to do what he does best—mess with an opponent’s head, making him believe that the 30-year-old Spaniard is either an impassable barrier or someone who, while not unbeatable, demands too high a price for that W.

Murray is susceptible to this challenge, because he’s a complicated guy with a healthy instinct for self-sabotage. He’s the one thing Ferrer is not—complicated. That’s reflected in his style of play and his mental approach, which features a kind of sometimes fatal curiosity about any opponent:

Does he have something to beat me with? Can I play his game and beat him on his terms? Can I torture or anger this guy into submission, by feeding him just the balls he needs to put away if he wants to win?

You can’t indulge in those kinds of games with Ferrer. He may be small, but he’s not the kind of fly whose wings can be pulled off easily. In fact, in the first set it looked as if Ferrer would soar and bag that elusive first win over a Top 5 player, as well as his second Masters 1000 title (he won his first one just last November, when he topped qualifier Jerzy Janowicz in Paris). Murray looked listless and out of touch, while Ferrer smacked—and that’s exactly the word that comes to mind when he hits his forehand—forcing placements and outright winners left and right.

Murray had 16 unforced errors in the set, including the first three of the seven double faults that kept ruining his chances. He also blew through his three challenges before the fifth game of the set was over, which ought to give you an idea of the problems Murray had with his judgment all day.

In the second set, Ferrer started to miss more frequently, allowing Murray to settle in and break for a 2-1 lead. Another of the ironies engendered in the package that is Ferrer became manifest. Although he doesn’t hit the glorious winners or club the spectacular errors that give many matches a clear theme, whether he wins or loses really does come down to something just as simple. Will he miss X-number of balls or won’t he? That, and that alone determines the lion’s share of his matches. Tactics are overrated when it comes to playing Ferrer, and he does pretty well himself without bothering too much with them.

It looked like Murray was getting dialed in and prepared to impose himself on Ferrer when that break was followed by two holds. But Ferrer continued to push and press, to make Murray work for every point he won. And it began to tell. Ferrer was, once again, as unshakeable as a bad cold. But when Murray sloughed off two break points in the next game to take a 4-2 lead, it looked as if the match had turned in his favor.

Not so fast, Andy.

After a Ferrer hold, Murray again fell behind in his next service game, and this time it looked like he finally might have cracked. At break point, he ended a short rally with an ill-advised drop shot. It seemed like Murray had run the white flag up the pole; it was a stinking hot day, and Ferrer was already a set up and showing no signs whatsoever of giving ground.

And that, if you’re a realist or cynic (the two are easily confused), is where things went bad for Ferrer, no matter how much was yet to come. It also was the juncture at which we received some real insight into why Ferrer has so much trouble against superior players.

Two games from wrapping up the match in two sets, Ferrer played a terrible game at 4-all. He made four ugly errors, the worst of them a sitter that he mangled, right on top of the net, to give up the break. Murray quickly served out the set, and then broke Ferrer again to start the third.

Murray’s inability to finish off Ferrer became the dominant theme of the final set. And while Ferrer certainly had his chances, and could easily have won, that third set was more exciting than interesting. After more than a dozen final-round matches against Top 5 players, not to mention his main rivals right below the Big Four level, Ferrer has committed any number of critical errors of judgment. But the one he came up with today is apt to be the most haunting.

By the time Ferrer reached match point, Murray’s form was rapidly degenerating. He appeared to have strained a hip. He wagged his head in disgust and his shoulder slumped. In those last three or four games he seemed incapable of walking; he just shuffled from one side of the court to the other.

Ferrer seemed to have Murray pinned when he held serve to plow ahead 6-5, and the Spaniard appeared to get a great emotional boost from the hold. At deuce in the next game, he rallied with such conviction and energy that Murray decided to try to finish the point at the net. He speared a backhand volley out. Match point, Ferrer.

The memorable stoppage occurred after a brief but intense rally, when Murray drove yet another long, relatively flat forehand toward Ferrer’s forehand corner. Ferrer actually played the shot, but pulled up almost as soon as his strings addressed the ball, finger in the air to indicate a challenge.

“I went for that forehand,” Murray said afterward, italics on the word “went” for emphasis. “It dropped in at the last second. It felt good to me, from the way he hit his shot—like my ball had skidded off the line. I don’t think he was so sure of his challenge, either. It was just centimeters from being his match, and not getting that point—that’s probably why he didn’t play such a strong tiebreaker.”

Like Ferrer, Murray was too frazzled to put a lot of thought into what had just happened. This was the longest final in Miami since the five-set final format was dropped, and it was also the first one that ended with a winner who had survived match point.

“It will take a little time for it to sink in,” Murray said. “I wasn’t thinking too much toward the end there. I was too tired. I was feeling too many nerves. Tomorrow, I’ll realize it was an exciting match. Both of us made a lot of mistakes, but what I did do was fight hard to get through it. Both of us were on our last legs, it was one of the toughest matches I ever had in a Masters Series event.”

When Ferrer was asked what message he had for his fans in the stadium moments after the end, his tone was humble, and poignant:

“I’m sorry. So sorry. One point.”

In a career defined by an admirable ability to return one more ball, to win one more point, David Ferrer came up one point short when he was on the verge of winning his biggest title, and turning in his greatest masterpiece of intransigence.

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