If someone told you that the winner of the match between Paris Masters top seed Rafael Nadal and No. 3 seed David Ferrer would be the guy who really rips the inside-out forehand and proves superior in the baseline rallies, you’d assume I was talking about Nadal.
You would be wrong.
For the second time this year, Ferrer found himself within two points of beating Nadal, against whom his record was a dismal 4-20 as of this morning (That other time, by the way, was in Madrid this spring, a quarterfinal match Nadal would win, 6-0 in the third). In fact, Ferrer was two points from victory twice today, and while he blew the chance in the 10th game of the second set, he made good on it in the 12th, holding serve to keep his title defense hopes alive, 6-3, 7-5.
From the outset today, Ferrer looked the sharper, bolder player. His game plan appeared to be the soul of simplicity: Keep working on that Nadal backhand to open up chances to go inside out with the forehand. If Ferrer could do that, his relatively flat, Davydenko-esque slap-shot forehand might take care of the rest.
Ferrer pursued that strategy like he pursues everything, with bulldog-like tenacity — and on this day, outstanding success. He leaped out to an early 4-1 lead but kept his nose to the grindstone and built the edge to 5-2. In the ensuing game, Nadal snapped off two errors and Ferrer contributed an un-returnable forehand to earn triple set point. That Nadal was able to smash his way through that impasse and ultimately hold serve with a down-the-line backhand winner for 3-5 must have left Ferrer backers groaning and fearing the worst.
But Ferrer reeled off three straight points when he served for the set in the next game. The third one represented the 21st point he won by way of a baseline rally (compared to just 12 by Nadal). Although Ferrer double-faulted away his first set point, he won the set on a wonderful forehand reach-volley that even Roger Federer might have envied.
Nadal held to start the second set and had chances to break Ferrer in the second game. But the “Little Beast” played terrific, aggressive tennis from that point on, parlaying a service winner, high volley winner and a forehand that smacked the net but dribbled over onto Nadal’s side into safe haven. He then won the game with a forehand winner and an ace.
The failure to break must have distracted Nadal, for he surrendered the next game without much of a fight. With the 2-1 lead, Ferrer produced a strong hold. But Nadal menaced him again just two games later. In that sixth game, the men jousted to deuce and Nadal eventually wrangled a break point. But Ferrer responded with a backhand down-the-line winner, and he won the next two points to hold, 4-2.
The next three games went on serve, and Ferrer soon found himself serving for the match at 5-4. He reached 30-all, but then made an anxiety-born forehand error, and Nadal broke him when Ferrer drilled the next Nadal service return into the net.
The enduring mystery in this match will be why Nadal then failed to take advantage of the momentum shift and hold serve. At 30-all, Ferrer prevailed in a brilliant 27-shot rally when Nadal yanked a down-the-line backhand wide of the line. A frustrated Nadal met the ensuing break point with a forehand error, leaving Ferrer to serve for it at 6-5.
Once again, Ferrer reached that critical 30-all juncture. But this time, Ferrer’s nerve held. He reached match-point and ended it with his final forehand winner of the night.
Stat of the match: Nadal won just 39 percent of the points when he missed his first serve — a pretty good indication of how aggressively and consistently Ferrer played from the baseline.