David Ferrer showed steely resolve at the Australian Open on Tuesday, battling back from two sets down to beat Nicolas Almagro 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.
When the protracted match was finally over, Ferrer threw up his arms, raised his sweat-drenched head to the skies, and let out an audible groan of exhausted relief. It was hard not to be happy for the fourth-ranked player, who broke all three of Almagro's chances to serve for the match, but even harder not to see the writing on the wall:
This is as far as Ferrer's journey will take him.
For awaiting the veteran Spaniard in the semifinal is Novak Djokovic, a familiar foe for Ferrer in major tournaments—familiar round too.
Djokovic eliminated Ferrer in the semifinals of the 2007 and 2012 U.S. Opens. Ferrer has also fallen at the hands of Djoker twice in Melbourne—2008 and 2012—both times a round earlier, in the quarters.
But this year was supposed to be different. Potentially, at least. Djokovic didn't just appear vulnerable in his fourth round match against Stanislas Wawrinka—he made himself vulnerable for the rest of the tournament. The marathon match (which Djokovic eventually won 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 12-10), lasted over five hours and left a fatigued Djokovic ripe for the picking against a proper opponent.
Ferrer, despite never besting Djokovic in a major, seemed to be a perfect candidate. He's beaten Djokovic in other, more minor tournaments (the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup and 2011 ATP World Tour Finals), proving that, if everything breaks right, he's capable of pulling the upset.
Having a distinct, marked fitness advantage would be a proper element of "everything breaking right." It's not often that the world's top player leaves the door open like that, and going into Tuesday, it appeared Ferrer might be able to capitalize.
But short of actually dropping his quarterfinal match, Tuesday's results couldn't have gone much worse for the Spaniard's prospects, First Djokovic dispatched his opponent, Tomas Berdych, in four tidy sets, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. The match lasted only two hours and 31 minutes—exactly half the time of last round's epic.
Ferrer, not the top-ranked Serbian, was the one left plodding through a marathon. And now, come Thursday, Ferrer, not the top-ranked Serbian, will be the one worrying about his fitness. At the very least he squandered his advantage in the exhaustion department, and if anything else, he's the one who's now left in physical worry.
Per ESPN, Ferrer said "it was (a) miracle" that he beat Almagro Tuesday afternoon. Beating Novak Djokovic in the semis, two days removed from that grueling match, might require even more divine intervention.