In brief:

Reaching at least the quarterfinals at every major and winning seven tournaments, David Ferrer ended his best season to date by winning his most significant title with his first Masters 1000 shield.

In detail:

For much of his career, David Ferrer has labored in a strange purgatory:  clearly one of the best players in the world—and just as clearly the second-best player in his own nation.  Peaking relatively late in his career, whereas Nadal peaked relatively early, Ferrer has dwelled in the shadows of his more famous compatriot without any of the ill will that might have characterized a lesser man.  While this status has hampered his confidence against the top four on many key occasions, it has not hampered his ability to relentlessly oppress virtually all opponents of an inferior standard. 

From the first few tournaments of 2013 unfolded that thread once again, perhaps even more starkly than usual.  Ferrer swept to titles at each of his first three non-majors, facing a total of one top-twenty opponent (Almagro) at the trio, and he solved his first four challengers at the Australian Open before succumbing to Djokovic in a relatively uneventful quarterfinal.  On the slow hard courts of Miami, he earned his best win of the season to that stage with a comprehensive performance against Del Potro, a competitor who had displayed similar consistency and probably would have collected a runner-up trophy for this award.  As he would on two faster courts in Great Britain, Ferrer expertly deconstructed the far taller, far more powerful Argentine with an agility and ruthlessness that evoked a wasp stinging a stallion.  Although Djokovic again swatted him away a round later en route to another title, the Spaniard brought momentum to the European clay that he loves.  Unfortunately for Ferrer, Nadal has not lost a whit of his own affection for the terre battue this year and in fact had rekindled his resolve to shine there in the wake of a slightly disappointing 2011 campaign.  Rafa proved the only barrier to his compatriot’s ambitions in both their home tournament of Barcelona and in Rome, battlegrounds where they had clashed before with similar results.

If the results remained the same, however, the trajectory of those matches differed from many of their previous clay encounters.  As Nadal admitted afterwards, Ferrer outplayed his nemesis for most of the Barcelona final before he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after holding set points in the first set and serving for the second set.  In Rome, he again extended Rafa through an epic first set and held a lead in a tiebreak that could have redefined the match.  Those narrow losses appeared to stifle Ferrer’s hope when they met again at Roland Garros, a much more authoritative victory for the reigning champion two days before his record seventh title there.  En route to that stage, however, the elder Spaniard had built upon his rich vein of form on clay to upset world #4 Murray in a match where surface familiarity proved crucial.  Despite its grim ending, Ferrer’s fortnight at Roland Garros marked a personal breakthrough with a semifinal at a tournament where he previously had underachieved.

When they met back on his home soil, Murray turned the tables in a scintillating four-set quarterfinal at Wimbledon, but more broadly Ferrer could claim a strong grass season that included a Dutch Open title.  His successes there and in the first week at the All England Club, where he ended Roddick’s last appearance, reached an unexpected level of achievement for the surface that most exposed his lack of first-strike capacity.  That greatest weakness of his game did not prevent Ferrer from another stirring fortnight at the US Open, sometimes considered to lay the fastest surface of any major.  In the absence of Nadal, many expected the section without Federer, Djokovic, or Murray to open an opportunity for virtually anyone inclined to seize it.  Ferrer proved otherwise, rising to the challenge of justifying his top-four seed after a titanic clash with Tipsarevic that showcased not only his physical fitness but his appetite for battle.  Trailing by two sets to one and by an early break in the final set, he conceded nothing in a final-set tiebreak through a series of meticulously constructed rallies.  Halted yet again by Djokovic in a semifinal addled by rain, he appeared likely to hang his hat on that semifinal appearance as his greatest non-clay achievement of 2012. 

The fall season on indoor hard courts had frustrated Ferrer for much of his career, both because of the relatively fast speed and because of the accumulated fatigue from his heavy schedule.  After he won a tournament on home soil at Valencia, however, a golden opportunity awaited in the last Masters 1000 tournament of the year.  While both Federer and Nadal had withdrawn from the Paris Indoors, Djokovic and Murray fell early in the draw to unseeded points, leaving Ferrer—astonishingly—as the highest-ranked player in the quarterfinals.  Surely the Spaniard recognized that this window would not open again soon in an era dominated so overwhelmingly by the men above him, so he could not let it slip away.  In his most dangerous test of the week, his gritty determination trumped the raw talent of home favorite and fast-court specialist Tsonga.  Aligned against the inexperienced Janowicz in the final, Ferrer mastered the pressure of the heavy favorite to win his first career Masters 1000 shield in unruffled fashion.  That accomplishment emboldened him for the year-end championships, where he failed to advance from his group despite losing to Federer.  But he competed with honor in winning a meaningless three-setter there from Tipsarevic, and he ended 2012 by recording Spain’s only two victories in the Davis Cup final.  Ferrer had spearheaded the team courageously all year, compiling an undefeated singles record and leading them to the brink of victory even in Nadal’s absence.

In the wake of perhaps his most consistent season to date, Ferrer has positioned himself to become the top Spaniard if he can record another strong start in 2013.  A competitor who gains satisfaction from competition itself, he continues to run tirelessly across courts in match after match around the globe while staying motionless just outside the circle of elite champions.  Even as he approaches 31, Ferrer looks nowhere near ready to stop running.

Number to note:

7:  Ferrer’s number of total titles this year, which led the ATP and also marked a career high.  (In fact, he never had won more than three in a year before.)  Furthermore, he led the ATP in total matches won this year with 76 and lost only five matches to players outside the top 10.

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