MIAMI, Fla.—You may remember the kid. You saw him every blessed day, at the courts in the park, or behind the high school, or at the club. He was always there, always looking for a game. His tennis shoes were scuffed, the shirt less than dazzling white.
The first words — maybe the only words — on his lips were: “Wanna hit?” He was always there, even on the those brutally hot, humid, August afternoons. Ready to play. Ready to hit. You may not recall a single shot he ever hit that seemed touched by genius, artistry was not in his DNA. But you could hear the “pop” of the ball on his strings all afternoon, even on the most listless summer afternoon.
He was always there. Always ready. Wanna hit?
If you don’t remember that kid, or never knew one like him, don’t worry. Just buy a ticket to any big tennis event and you can catch still him, Just look at the order-of-play and find the name, David Ferrer. Today, Ferrer advanced to the final of the Sony Open with a trademark, dogged win over Tommy Haas, in a clash of two men on the far side of 30: Ferrer will turn 32 on April 2, one day before Haas turns 35.
Ferrer is the ultimate grinder on the ATP Tour. Like that kid, he seems willing to stay on the court well into twilight — or until the lights are turned off and everyone gives up and goes home. It’s only fitting that even though Ferrer has a hefty clothing contract and could easily afford a hot shave and haircut every day, he perpetually looks disheveled. His long hair hangs in lank strands. Even his shoes testify to the beating he takes in every match, win or lose. They quickly lose their clean lines and symmetrical shape because of the stress he puts them through. Everything about him asks, Wanna hit — Quieres pegarle un poco?
This, unfortunately, is not the kind of opponent Haas might have hoped to face in the semifinals of this Masters 1000 event because, even as expertly — nay, beautifully — as Haas has played this week, the yards run and the energy expended were bound to take their toll. The simplicity of the narrative I must convey doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the quality of this match.
Haas played stunning tennis. He was as appealing and exciting to watch as a thoroughbred race horse, but the deadly mix of his age — and Ferrer’s resilience — made him look like an eight furlong horse asked to run a 10 furlong race. Ferrer, who’s much better at winning than at taking your breath away, prevailed in a match that lasted just over two hours, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.
“In the first set, Tommy played better than me,” Ferrer said afterward. “I was a little out with my mind. In the second set, I played more consistent in my game and felt better. I tried to fight for every point. I know Tommy in the third set was a little bit more tired than me. I know that.”
It was a fair assessment, even if doesn’t entirely do justice to the electric artistry of Haas — or the toughness of Ferrer. When someone mentioned that there seems to be no back-up in Ferrer, Haas said: “That speaks for how tough he is. It’s a pleasure to watch, but tough to play against. I respect his work ethic a lot. It’s really inspirational. Playing against him,you know you’re going to have to fight for a lot of balls and put yourself in a position to win.”
Haas put himself into that position today, but he was unable to close the deal while his legs were still fresh and he could draw freely on the energy of a crowd that has fallen in love with him this week.
Shouts of encouragement ("Atta boy, Tommy!" "One at a Time", "Tommy! Come on, Tommy, let’s go!" — believe it or not, there was even a "Vamos Tommy!" thrown in there) rained down as Haas bolted to a 5-2, two-break lead — thanks to one of the many dazzling shots he produced in this match. After a furious rally that stretched the court wide on both sides of the court, Haas nailed a perfect approach shot that drew Ferrer off the court as Haas rolled up to the net to finish the game with a sharp, textbook backhand volley.
Haas failed to serve it out in the next game, and it might have cost him more dearly than it appeared at the time. But as the second set started, Haas still looked strong. He didn’t hit the wall until the sixth game. Serving at 2-3, Haas had game point, but he went for too much with a forehand approach. He reached game point again with a service winner, but lost the next point on one of those poor decisions that can have an outsized impact on a match.
It happened like this:
The men had a long rally, and Haas missed an excellent chance to follow a backhand in to the net. His indecision — was it a sign that his synapses were beginning to fire just a split-second late? — cost him, and it was almost like he knew it when he drilled his next shot, another backhand, into the net. A double fault gave Ferrer a break point, to which Haas responded with another error — this one a forehand that he drove deep after another warp-speed rally.
Haas blinked. Ferrer, the kid who just wants to hit, was right in his element, warming up to the task at hand.
That game marked the beginning of Haas’s decline, which came to a climax in the eighth game of the third set — after Ferrer, keeping the pressure on and growing more bold with each grunt and huge cut, built a 4-3 lead. In the ensuing game, Haas won two points with service winners but, more telling, he made a critical error on each of the three of the points when Ferrer put the ball into play. The fourth was a double fault that ended the game and, for all practical purposes, the match.
After losing that game to fall behind 3-5, Haas waited for Ferrer to serve. His head was lowered, and he appeared to be berating himself. He took a disgusted swipe at the court with his racquet, then lifted his head to take his punishment. What was he thinking, after that penultimate game?
“You at least try to make the guy hit the shots, to pass you, or to beat you. I made few unforced errors. . .That's not satisfying to me," Haas said. "I can't really walk off the court feeling like, ‘You know, that's okay’ ...I knew when I made those mistakes that I might have let it slip away, my chance. I just couldn’t come up with the goods at the end.”
Haas was probably being a little tough on himself, albeit not as tough as Ferrer had been on him. Ferrer is, after all, the No. 3 seed and No. 5 ranked player in the world — a guy who may be a spring chicken by Haas’s standard, but who still loves to ask everyone he faces: Quieres pegarle un poco?