At 30, David Ferrer is at the peak of his powers, but standing in his way to the top of the tennis world are a few guys named Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray, writes Steve Elling.
David Ferrer aims to continue his fantastic journey
David Ferrer is not old. Just older.
Clearly at the peak of his powers at 30, an age when injury, apathy and simple biology often mark the beginning of a career retreat in men's tennis, the gritty Spaniard reeled off seven title triumphs in 2012, keeping his No 5 place in the world rankings.
From virtually beginning to end, Ferrer played at a different plateau, amassing nearly half of his career total of 18 wins.
After all these years, he turned constancy into consistency.
"My performance has been consistent throughout the year and this is down to many years of playing against the very best in the industry," Ferrer said, replying to questions compiled by The National.
Nobody is more industrious than this guy.
He returns to the Mubadala World Tennis Championship at Zayed Sports City this week for the unofficial kick-off to the 2013 season.
Ferrer this year helped fill the Spanish victory void created when his countryman, Rafael Nadal, was sidelined by a knee injury beginning in late June, most notably winning both of his matches in the Davis Cup final last month, Spain's only points in a 3-2 loss to the Czech Republic.
Ferrer won seven of the eight times he made the finals in official events in 2012, a testament to his tenacity, which few would argue is his best asset.
In a sport increasingly populated by big hitters with howitzer serves, Ferrer is relatively undersized at 1.75m and 72kg, but he wears down his opponents with an unnerving patience and seemingly boundless energy.
One of his nicknames is "the Cat", understandable given his quickness, but his style is best described as dogged. He can be agonising to face: camped along the baseline, banging back shot after shot, using his quick feet to reach every volley.
Roger Federer, perhaps the best ever to swing a racket, has characterised Ferrer as the best return artiste in the business, for good reason - he rarely blinks first.
Last season, there were many happy returns. His appearance in Abu Dhabi last winter might have signalled that something special was afoot for 2012.
He shrugged off a 2-6 loss of the first set against the big-hitting Jo-Wilfried Tsongas to win 2-6, 7-6, 6-2, then overwhelmed a rusty Nadal in a semi-final 6-3, 6-2. Perhaps fatigued by a third match in as many days, he went down 6-2, 6-1 to the world No 1 Novak Djokovic in the final.
"It is a very good start to the year for me," Ferrer said of his week in Abu Dhabi. "Playing against such good opponents early on sets you up for a good season."
If this marks the set-up, the punchline ought to be pretty good.
Last year, he won on every type of surface, although he remains particularly effective on clay, on which he has amassed half his career wins.
He matched or bettered his performance in three of the four grand slam events last year as well, which could portend an even bigger 2013.
"Every time that I play a tournament, I visualise winning, but it is very complicated because there are so many good players at the moment and every match is a difficult match," he said.
"Obviously, winning a final gives you great confidence, but it's not just a win that can motivate you.
"If I feel I played well or improved my technique just slightly, this also spurs me on." He certainly creates opportunities. No player in the top seven in the world rankings played more last year than did Ferrer. Indeed, his 25 tournaments were five more than any of the four players ranked ahead of him mustered last season. Three of those players - Djokovic, Nadal and Murray - will be at the Mubadala event in Abu Dhabi, which boasts six of the top nine in the world.
"It is a privilege for me to play against these spectacular players," Ferrer said. "I always try to do my best and this tournament gives me a great opportunity to test my skills."
That skill set includes a considerable tool that might not be obvious. One of the more cerebral players on the circuit, Ferrer is forever reading some sort of tome. The latest on his bedside table is a motivational, self-help book by Rafael Santandreu, The Art of Life is Not Bitter, an offering he enjoyed so much, he posted a review of it on his personal website.
"A very good book," he said.
With any more self-improvement, Ferrer will crack the grass ceiling that exists between the top four in the world and rest of the men's tour.
That, and a major championship, are his current biggest challenges, and he never backs down from a challenge.
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