Modern men’s tennis is a ruthless game. Men’s tennis has featured many styles over its years; serve and volley, the power game, the clay rat. Players were easy to pigeon hole into specific styles, and you knew what you were going to get. Even players as late as Roddick and Hewitt had specific styles and shots they were likely to play, but also with some very distinct weaknesses.
Existing at the top today requires being the full package. All of the top four serve well, dictate play, play great defense, run for days and make incredible shots off both wings. Players such as Tsonga, Berdych and the much missed Soderling could simply over power their opponents by hitting right through them.
David Ferrer, aged 30 and listed at 5’9 and 160lbs (rounded up?) is enjoying what is the best year of his career. He can’t make Federer wonder shots, he doesn’t possess Nadal’s strength or spin, nor Djokovic’s agility. He doesn’t have nearly the power of any of the seven players listed above. How then, does he do it?
David Ferrer is both a champion of extreme fitness and extreme concentration. Due to his build, Ferrer is almost immediately behind most of the players in the top 20. Truly, it can’t be underlined enough. The man is 30 years old. Thirty. And he hasn’t missed massive amounts of time due to injury either.
The energy Ferrer brings to the court is astonishing. Yes, he’s speedy. But quick means very little if your footwork and endurance is not at peak physical ability. First off, let’s break down exactly what we’re talking about with “footwork”. It’s a nice buzz term to use, but how does it work?
Footwork doesn’t necessarily refer to how quick a player can move, but how quickly a player can move their feet to adjust to a shot. This means a few things. To start, a player is likely to commit fewer errors, that’s pretty obvious. Secondly, a player is going to have an easier time placing the ball where they want; they can adjust their body to get a more acute angle, and so on. Thirdly, it means a player can accelerate quicker and play much better defense. If a ball is tricky to reach, the player is more likely to be able to get something on the ball to get it over the net in some sort of decent position. Ferrer does this exceptionally well on the backhand wing.
There’s also something Ferrer does exceptionally well that is not often mentioned. He gets the ball deep. If Ferrer simply ran and got the ball back over the net, he would be destroyed. Even when not pushing Del Potro around last night, he pinned him back with excellent depth of shot. Del Potro, trying to find a way to take advantage of a short ball from Ferrer was left with little hope and instead was forced to simply respond to what the Spaniard would fire at him next.
Finally, Ferrer’s concentration is absolutely superb. I truly believe that concentration and fitness go hand in hand. So much is made of a player’s mental strength, and so much narrative wrapped around it. In shorter matches, I often find this incredibly overplayed, but it is difficult to understate in long matches. If you have been playing tennis for four hours, you’re not only going to be physically tired, you’re going to be mentally exhausted. One way to keep from being mentally exhausted is to be physically fit.
I’m not sure you could make a case for anyone being more physically fit than Ferrer. Not only is he 30, the way he must play, run, and hit the ball deep requires a ton more mileage and effort than players like Federer or Djokovic. That a player can win Paris on a Sunday, fly to London, and then dismantle Del Potro in three sets on a Tuesday night is truly remarkable.
While the players in the top 4 are incredible tennis players, and should be celebrated as such, Ferrer is truly one of the greatest athletes this sport has seen, and a real victory for the everyman (AKA us small guys!).
Enjoy Ferrer not just for his size, but for the rules that he breaks week in and week out. Run, “little man”, run.