David Ferrer, finally, looked tired.
He had a right: After 19 years of unadulterated effort, the 37-year-old Spaniard’s career was about to come to a close in Madrid on Wednesday. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to survive another game against Alexander Zverev, Ferrer looked over at his family, took a deep breath, and gave them a half smile that was equal parts resigned and relieved. It had taken two decades and more than 1100 matches—734 of which he won—but Ferrer was finally ready to take off his bandanna and throw in his well-worn towel.
Ferrer was known as the Little Beast by some, but he preferred the simpler and less vicious “Ferru”—a play on ferrous, or iron. That made sense, because in an era of soaring stars, Ferrer was the ATP’s earthbound iron man; a pure competitor, his game and mind had a steely inflexibility. Ferrer was just 5’9, he won very few cheap points, and he couldn’t end a rally with one magical swing of his racquet. He had to do it the hard way, and for a brief moment in his teens, the effort required was too much. Ferrer quit the game and did a stint as a bricklayer, which lasted just long enough to make him realize that running around a tennis court wasn’t a bad way to make a living.
So Ferrer never stopped running. He built his career brick by brick, match by match, shot by shot, with nothing flashy or extraneous to his game. He walked with a heavy determination between points, and what his strokes lacked in artistry they made up for in simple, bloody single-mindedness. When his opponents set up to serve, they would invariably look across the net and see Ferru staring right back, bouncing like a boxer who was ready to leap out of his corner of the ring and start slugging. Where some players try to make the sport look effortless, Ferrer, by punctuating every swing with a grunt, was happy to let his opponents know how hard he was working.
Yet like his fellow Spanish workhorse, Rafael Nadal, Ferrer had a more complete game than he was credited with; he could play with finesse, and he knew his way around the net. In a sport that rewards ego, Ferrer won by telling himself that he wasn’t a superstar. It was a mental approach that allowed him to go out and fight for every point, without worrying about his place on the game’s totem pole. Still, by 2012, at the advanced age of 31, he found himself near the very top of that pole. That year he won his only Masters 1000 title, at Bercy; the following year he reached his only major final, at the French Open, and finished the season a career-high No. 3.
Of course, Ferrer’s ego-less approach had its limits: Namely, the Big 3. He finished his career with an 11-59 record against Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer—he was 0-17 against Federer. Perhaps part of Ferrer’s popularity with tennis fans in general stemmed from the fact that he never challenged any of their favorites. If the Big 3, or Big 4, were a band, Ferrer was their drummer. For the better part of a decade, he kept a strong, steady beat from the baseline, and he made the guys in front of him on stage look good. As Federer himself said yesterday, Ferrer wasn’t a star that you idolized or worshipped; he was something better: the humble, hard-working guy you modeled yourself after.
That said, Ferrer was also a player to remember in his own right; if anyone who hasn’t won a Grand Slam title deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame, it’s him. Looking back over 20 years of watching him, a few moments stay with me.
At the tumultuous 2011 US Open, Ferrer was scheduled to play Andy Roddick on a court that had been rain-damaged. Roddick refused, and led Ferrer and the rest of the officiating crew off to play on a side court instead. Afterward, a reporter tried to suggest that Open officials had attempted to get him to play on an unsafe, dangerous court. He immediately shot the idea down: “No, no, no, no, no,” he said, shaking his head. Ferrer never had time for made-up controversies or dramas or any other forms of BS.
By 2012, Ferrer had done everything, it seemed, except win a big tournament. But the Bercy event that year provided a unique opportunity: Federer and Nadal didn’t play, and Djokovic and Andy Murray lost early. This was Ferru’s chance, and he took it, beating Jerzy Janowicz in the final. It was his long-awaited moment in the spotlight, and Ferrer, after decades of dutifully playing second-fiddle, was overjoyed in a way that shouldn’t have surprised me, but did.
It surprised me, because I sometimes thought that Ferrer could be a little too humble. He knew how good the Big 3 were, but did he know how good he was? That leads me to my last, and perhaps best, memory of him. After losing to Nadal in Barcelona last month, Ferrer took off his bandanna, walked out to the service T in the center of the court, and laid it down there as the crowd stood and cheered.
He had made this gesture before during his 2019 farewell tour, but this was the first time I’d seen it. It was clear now that Ferrer knew what he was about, what made him a special player, and how he wanted to be remembered. His sweat, his labor, his heart: Ferrer left it all on the court, and left behind a legacy for every tennis player to follow.