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David Ferrer on his way to a shock straight-sets victory over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open yesterday.
David Ferrer on his way to a shock straight-sets victory over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open yesterday.

David slays Goliath Nadal in Melbourne

If you pegged David Ferrer as the man to halt the locomotive Rafael Nadal in Melbourne then you possess some soothsaying keenness.

Around tennis there always lurk one or more of what you might call chronic fourth-rounders. They always show up for the grand slam parties but refrain from staying around much past halfway. They never make much noise and they never make a mess. They make commendable guests and depart ahead of the hours that cause the chattering.

They can walk most worldly streets unrecognised and unmobbed and for this they might feel even grateful. As reliable winners in first rounds and reliable losers in third rounds or fourth rounds or quarter-finals, they seem to lack that inner gadget or outer gift that pushes a player to the top rungs. If you want to belittle them for that, well then, why don't you try getting out there on court opposite them?

You could chronicle recent major tournaments and do a credible job according to your bosses without ever meeting or even coming across David Ferrer from the edge of the Mediterranean in Spain.

You might get to the seventh or eighth day and learn he's out there on some hinterland court, still slugging it away in some third or fourth round.

He lost? Oh, OK.

Ferrer's access of a No 4 ranking in 2008 would have come as a vast mystery to all but a tennis-bonkers fraction of the world's population, if indeed all but the tennis-bonkers even recognised his name. Or, as a retired Spanish professional put it in a telephone conversation in 2008: "He's number four in the world, and nobody gives a ..."

If you pegged David Ferrer as the man to halt the locomotive Rafael Nadal just three wins shy of Nadal becoming the first player since Rod Laver to hold all four grand slam trophies - however relevant Nadal's thigh injury last night in Melbourne - then you possess some soothsaying keenness.

Before this Melbourne tournament, he had played in 32 consecutive grand slams - itself a feat - without flunking the first round in any of the past 20, during which he reached nine third rounds, five fourth rounds, two quarter-finals twice, one semi-final.

Unspectacularly reliable and reliably unspectacular, he did defeat Nadal in four sets in the fourth round of the 2007 US Open, but the savants chalked it up to Nadal's greenness on concrete and his physical impairment from a grinding calendar born of persistent winning.

In their seven meetings since 2007, Nadal had won seven with trademark mercilessness, conceding zero sets.

Worse, Ferrer got to age 28 with enough capable shots to blast you and me but with nothing in the quiver compelling enough to lure the eyeballs of the uninitiated. He seemed to lean on attrition, a tack particularly hopeless versus Superman of Mallorca.

Standing 3-11 versus Nadal and 0-11 against Roger Federer (while a good 4-5 against No 3 Novak Djokovic), Ferrer played recent-years' grand slams once as a No 4 seed, thrice as No 5 and mostly from just beyond general consciousness, from the low-to-mid teens. Never after Nadal in 2007 did he best a higher seed. His career seemed to peak commendably and semi-anonymously in 2008, fade in the maelstrom and then re-rise last year so imperceptibly that if you noticed, you probably qualify as a tennis nut.

He seemed to join the chronic middle-rounders such as Brian Gottfried from the 1970s, Tim Mayotte and to a lesser calibre Jakob Hlasek from the 1980s, Wayne Ferreira from the 1990s or, as a 21st-century female example, Patty Schnyder, who played 59 slams (52 in a row) and reached precisely the fourth round in a whopping 14, the third round in eight, the quarter-finals in six, the semi-finals in one.

Ferrer was Patty Schnyder, far from an insult in a harsh, harsh sport always dispensing the latest ambitious Eastern European ball-mauler among all other scary threats.

Worse for Ferrer's case was Nadal's protracted ravaging of prominent countrymen - 11-3 against Ferrer, 11-0 against Fernando Verdasco, 7-0 against Nicolas Almagro, 6-2 against Feliciano Lopez, 6-0 against Tommy Robredo, 7-2 against Juan Carlos Ferrero.

When Verdasco extended Nadal in a five-set masterpiece in Australia in 2009, it came as an achievement. In the 2008 French Open, Nadal mulched Verdasco and Almagro in successive rounds like some fearsome farm machinery, allowing each only three games so that a wry Spanish reporter observed that if he could get zero games against Nadal and those guys only three, he must not be that much worse than them.

So after a remarkable 25 consecutive grand slam wins, through French and Wimbledon and US Open titles and half of Australia, the man who would stall Nadal whatever the relevant or irrelevant injuries, who would show determined, masterful aggression, the trivia answer winds up being

David Ferrer?

Years on, that question will stump most.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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