- French Open preview
No better chance for Nearly Man Ferrer
By the time he arrived at match point they had already endured two and a half hours of hell on a hard court. Andy Murray was by no means at his best, losing the first five games of the match and dropping serve four times in the final set, but still there, desperate for a glimmer of inspiration as the scorching Key Biscayne afternoon left them drenched by their efforts. The Scot was starting to succumb to cramps; his own were in the post. But this was it. One point separated David Ferrer from the Sony Open title - a first for a Spaniard, a second Masters 1000 crown, and his first final victory against a top-five opponent.
The rally was a drawn out torture, the match in microcosm - Ferrer tenacious, Murray tentative. The Spaniard hit deep as Murray kept the point alive until he finally took on a midcourt forehand, blasting an all-or-nothing drive flat into the corner. Ferrer was there to field it but he couldn't help himself. He raised his hand, so slowly it seemed to happen in spite of himself, and left Hawkeye to decide his fate.
He crouched, hiding his eyes behind the handle of his racket, all too aware of what was coming. The ball was more out than in. Murray was reprieved; minutes later he was the champion. Of the 10 points that followed, Ferrer claimed just one.
"I'm sorry," he told the Crandon Park crowd, packed with a Hispanic support so vocal that Ferrer said he could have been playing back home. "I'm so sorry. One point. Next time."
This is the reality of life on the fringes of the big four, an existence Ferrer shares with the likes of Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stanislas Wawrinka. Each is equipped with the game to dismantle those below them in the ATP rankings and keep pace with those above, but while wins against the big guns are not altogether rare, significant victories are collector's items. All four fit neatly into the dark horse category, the staple of any respectable grand slam preview - alongside Juan Martin del Potro, who is yet to regain the form that saw him break up the quartet and win the 2009 US Open since his career-threatening wrist injury.
They are the Nearly Men, the band of unfortunate brothers doomed to be playing in an era that pits them against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. They are haunted by parallel lives lived in unreal pasts - had that ball not caught the line...had he been born five years earlier...
The Nearly Man tag rests heaviest on Ferrer's shoulders. Since Murray's US Open triumph the Spaniard is now arguably the best player without a major to his name, as backhanded as a compliment a player can get. He has reached the semi-finals at three of the last four grand slams - quarter-finals or better at the last five - and hauled in a career-best seven ATP Tour titles in 2012, triumphing on all three surfaces. He already has two titles from five finals in 2013. His stamina, consistency and instincts are better than at any other time in his career: in short, he's at the top of his game. For a player who turned 31 in April, it's one hell of an Indian summer.
But can we think of Ferrer, or any of the Nearly Men, as a potential grand slam champion in 2013? History dictates otherwise: Del Potro aside, no player outside of the big four has won a grand slam since the 2005 Australian Open. No other player has even contested a grand slam final since 2010, when Berdych was dispatched in straight sets by Nadal at Wimbledon.
A win for anyone bar Nadal, Federer or Djokovic in Paris seems almost unthinkable, but of the season's three remaining majors, Roland Garros is the most likely stage for a shock. Federer and Djokovic were both caught short in Madrid and Rome respectively, while Nadal is playing his first grand slam since his return to action in February. His six titles and eight final appearances suggest all is well, but how his knees will react to the rigours of five-set tennis remains to be seen.
Murray hasn't even made it to Paris. The back injury that forced him to retire against Marcel Granollers in Rome has been a problem throughout the clay court season. With Wimbledon following hot on the heels of the French, he has opted to rest up rather than risk aggravating the problem further before turning his attention to another assault at SW19.
Murray's absence provides an instant boost for Ferrer. Back-to-back quarter-final defeats by Nadal in Madrid and Rome saw him demoted to No. 5 in the world and set for a potential big four quarter-final showdown. Exit Monsieur Murray, however, and Senor Ferrer can now avoid either Djokovic or Federer - who he has never beaten - until the semi-finals, and favourite Nadal until the final.
After that he's on his own, left to solve the conundrum of what sets the best apart on the most exposed of stages. Tennis is a brutal meritocracy at the best of times but a grand slam does all it can to take chance out of the equation: whether for a fleeting fortnight or for the rest of your career, seven five-set contests against the best the game has to offer stand between a player and glory.
Being good enough is only half the battle; perhaps more than that you have to believe you are good enough. Those losses to Nadal both went the distance, but it was the manner of his 4-6 7-6 6-0 Madrid defeat - from a winning position, in front of his countrymen - that hurt him most. Speaking after the match, Nadal was the first to suggest that his opponent deserved the semi-final spot, "but that's sport for you."
It's a truism Ferrer knows only too well: the better player does not always leave the court a winner. Belief, the sort needed to ignore a shot that might have missed the baseline and back yourself to win the point regardless, or to bounce back in the final set after seeing a first shot at victory slip by, is what truly sets the big four apart from the rest.
"The lost final at Miami with Andy Murray was less dramatic and maybe not so important," he reflected in Madrid. "It's true, I could have won both the matches. If everything had gone right my life wouldn't have changed. But my career? Yes, they would have been unforgettable and indelible moments."
The margins are agonisingly slim at the pinnacle of any sport. Ferrer knows just how close he is to matching the four names that appear above him in the rankings as he heads to Paris. First he must get himself in contention - and a lucky draw will help. But should he reach the semi-finals in top form, we will see if he has learnt from Miami and Madrid.
One point. Next time.