Barcelona 2019: Rafael Nadal scores 60th win, but David Ferrer is the toast of the tournament
After two decades on the pro tour and 27 titles, Ferrer tells the ATP: “The affection I have received is what will stay with me.”
It is one of the highlights of the clay season for Spain’s passionate tennis fans. The Barcelona Open, the only ATP500 tournament among the 12 that comprise the unbroken two months on the red stuff, is played out in this nation’s oldest tennis club.
The Real Club de Tenis dates back to 1899, and Spain expects. After all, home players have won 14 of the last 16 titles, and its former champions have included Spanish Grand Slam champions such as Manolo Santana, Manuel Orantes, and Carlos Moya.
None of those former champions, though, could match the achievements of defending and 11-time champion Rafael Nadal, back at the top of the draw and targeting a remarkable 12th.
That his story now plays out on a centre court already christened in his honour—the Club dubbed his stomping ground Pista Rafa Nadal with his 10th victory in 2017—only highlights his unparalleled achievements in Barcelona and the admiration he enjoys.
Of course, he has not been alone in drawing the Spanish fans. This year, Nadal was one of 10 home players in a main draw. But if there has been one man feeling as much love in Barcelona as Nadal has, it is compatriot David Ferrer who, at the age of 37, will bow out of tennis at his home Masters in Madrid next month—and this would be his farewell to Barcelona.
And love is the right word for a man who has worked like few others to create a resume of 27 titles from 52 finals that will be admired long into the future.
In a sport dominated by men on the taller side of 6ft, he stood 5ft9ins, and in an era dominated by three of the greatest players ever to lift a racket—and Roger Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic top the ranks for Majors and Masters titles—he reached No3 in the rankings and qualified seven times for the World Tour Finals.
Along the way, he managed to break the Masters glass ceiling by winning Paris Bercy, yet so many times he was thwarted. He reached the title match of the World Tour Finals, and at Masters in Miami, Shanghai, Monte Carlo, Rome, Cincinnati and another in Paris—beaten every time by one of that triumvirate or by the fourth of the ‘big four’, Andy Murray.
But just like the king-of-clay Nadal has been to so many others, he proved to be Ferrer’s nemesis. Nadal it was who denied Ferrer at the final hurdle in Rome, at Roland Garros and in Monte-Carlo. And he it was who four times beat Ferrer in the Barcelona final.
A cruel stroke, then, that in his final appearance, Ferrer should face Nadal in the third round.
If there was one glimmer of hope for Ferrer, whose retirement decision was hastened by long stretches of injury, it was that the usually impregnable Nadal had not yet been at his best. Even at the Monte-Carlo Masters, where he had also been chasing his 12th title, he was pressed hard by Guido Pella before falling to the eventual champion Fabio Fognini in the semis.
But make no mistake, the numbers when it comes to Nadal and clay continue to confound. Against his Davis Cup companion, he was looking for his 60th match-win in Barcelona for just three losses. Of his 80 career titles, 57 had come on the red stuff, and he was the all-time leader in the win-loss index at almost 92 percent—including 86-2 at the French Open.
Ferrer, though, got the first winner of the match, and another brought up a break point in the opening game. Nadal, whose match against Leonardo Mayer in Round 2 had been riddled with uncharacteristic errors, attacked the net to hold off the break, but a wayward forehand offered Ferrer another chance.
Nadal came through, but it had been a test, and he was taken to deuce in the third game, too, with Ferrer stepping in to take the ball early, trying out the drop shot, and getting some real traction on his backhand. He even made a serve and volley winner in his second service game.
But Nadal was beginning to work himself into a familiar rhythm, and hit the lines time and again to run Ferrer ragged. He got his first break chance in the sixth game, and then another chance after a tricky net exchange. Ferrer missed a backhand by a centimetre: 4-2.
The court was heavy with intermittent rain, and Ferrer had to work hard to get enough pace through the court to pass his opponent—and it seemed to grow harder with each game.
Indeed so damp were the conditions that the players finally left court, with Nadal about to serve for the set, 5-3. It had taken almost an hour to get this far, and they were separated by only three points out of the 60 played, but when they returned, it would take just another four minutes for Nadal to seal the set, 6-3.
Ferrer opened the second set with too many errors, his serve cold, his backhand missing the mark, and he faced 0-40. A netted backhand conceded the break, and he growled with frustration after failing to convert break-back chances: Nadal led 2-0.
But Ferrer gradually warmed up again, and this time held to love with some stand-out shot-making, not least a scurrying chase to hoist a lob onto the back corner. Now he went after Nadal again to earn two more break chances, and this time the backhand got its reward, a break.
But for all the quality coming from Ferrer, Nadal was upping his level with every game, turning defence into attack, throwing in pitch-perfect drop-shots, and he broke again. Ferrer would have to serve to stay in the match, and two double faults did him no favours.
The ultimate warrior Ferrer defended for all he was worth to reach deuce and fended off three match points, but Nadal would not be denied. One last error from his spirited opponent, and Nadal had his 60th Barcelona win, 6-3, after almost two hours of intense, demanding tennis.
So the mighty Spaniard was into his 13th quarter-final on his own court. But it was the other mighty Spaniard who enjoyed a long and emotional standing ovation, including from Nadal himself.
Ferrer smiled, raised his arm in thanks, and dropped his bandana on the centre of the service line, as he has done after each departure this season. In an interview for the ATPTour.com, he explained:
“I don’t do it to look good… it’s like leaving your final drops of sweat behind.”
In that same interview, Ferrer was asked if he was surprised at the outpouring of affection he had received as he headed towards the locker-room for the last time:
“I really didn’t. It’s really surprised me. Above all, from my peers in the world of tennis… That’s why you want to leave behind good memories of all the years you’ve played tennis. That’s what will stay with me.”
And yes, he stressed, such feelings were worth more than a title:
“Of course, easily! In the end, all you have left is the person. The titles stay in my trophy room, but they are no more than trophies. The experiences I’ve had, the affection I have received from the fans and my peers and friends in the world of tennis is what will stay with me.”
The huge heart and the gentle, modest character of Ferrer will stay with all of us.
Nadal will next face either No5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas or Jan-Lennard Struff. It was in Barcelona last year that the then teenage Greek made his first big breakthrough via three top-20 wins to reach the final, losing to Nadal.
Dominic Thiem, No3 seed and Barcelona runner-up in 2017, beat Jaume Munar, 7-5, 6-1. He will next face either Benoit Paire or Pella.
Two-time former champion and No4 seed Kei Nishikori beat No16 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, 6-1, 6-3, and will next play Christian Garin or Roberto Carballes Baena.
Daniil Medvedev, No7 seed, scored a tour-leading 23rd match-win over Mackenzie McDonald, 6-3, 6-2, and next plays Nicolas Jarry, who beat No13 seed Grigor Dimitrov, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(2). For the Chilean, it marked his fifth straight three-set win, having lost in qualifying to Marcel Granollers only to play the Spaniard again as a lucky loser, before beating No2 seed Alexander Zverev in Round 2.