It is as if David Ferrer was born to fight from behind. It will surely feel that way in Thursday night's first Men's Singles semifinal at the 2013 Australian Open against the world's current best, Novak Djokovic.
Because of the immense popularity and intrigue surrounding the "big four" of men's tennis, Spain's obscured Ferrer has always been the proverbial middle child.
He is not the young, up-and-coming tremendous talent over which tennis pundits endlessly muse over.
Nor is he ensconced within the demigod band of brothers, comprised of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, and Andy Murray, with adjectives and speculations conjectured by fans and media that rival the stuff of Greek mythology.
But none of that matters to Ferrer, because he doesn't need the limelight to be one of the most successful tennis players in the 2010s.
Let's be honest: we can say with certainty that Novak Djokovic is the unconditional favorite in this semifinal contest. His weapons are bigger, stronger, faster and more durable.
But the Serb is not unbeatable, and he is not immune to moments of weakness. So while the big stage heavily favors Nole, there are devices that the Spaniard David Ferrer can employ to give the Djoker a run for his money, or at the very least for his pocket change.
Don't Get Fancy
You may want to make sure you've gathered snacks and beverages before you sit down for this match, because there's going to be a lot of long points—really long points. These two are some of the best retrievers of the game.
The best thing Ferrer can do is focus on his strengths as he attempts to reach his first Grand Slam final, which include his aforementioned movement, his up-the-line forehand, which can effectively end a protracted point that he needs escaping from versus the Djoker (who is looking to reach his 10th final at a Major), and his underrated—and otherwise totally unknown—attacking game.
A New Meaning To Being Run Ragged
Novak Djokovic's perfection at the highest of athletic peaks is well-known, but fans of tennis are also well-versed in the diminutive, 5'9'' David Ferrer's elite level of fitness. In fact, it is his best known trait.
And frankly, you couldn't be much fitter. Ferrer has never retired from a match in his professional career, and he plays four more events on average than the rest of the Top 10 (and a full seven more events than the big, or demigod, four).
To give some perspective, the supposed epitome of stamina himself Novak Djokovic has retired 10 times in his career, five of which have come in Grand Slam matches.
While Djokovic owns a 9-5 career head-to-head over Ferrer (8-2 on hard courts), and a 4-1 record since his rise to tennis supremacy in 2011, this matchup often resembles a game of tag. While their ball-striking may have depth and angle, the points between these two players mostly lack injection of pace, and both are content to attempt to run the other one off the court after 15-, 20- or even 25-shot rallies.
Unfortunately for Ferrer, Djokovic moves better than him and changes directions more quickly off the back foot than Ferrer is able to with his smaller stature. To compensate, he'll need to fetch less and force more.
Stop Right There
Instead of allowing an elongated rally, in which Djokovic is often the victor as a result of his higher stroke consistency and weight of shot, it's imperative that Ferrer use his attacking forehand. He won't be able to do much off the backhand wing, so it's important for him to go for broke when he has Novak on the run and the option to whip a forehand.
Redirection is key for the Spaniard. The Serbian was slipping and sliding in his five-set near-loss against Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, specifically in the first two sets, an anomaly for the five-time Grand Slam champion whose footwork is usually exceptionally agile.
If there's any remote chance of Ferrer stealing this match, he'll certainly have to bag at least the first set, if not the first two, and if Djokovic's feet are starting slower than the rest of his body, Ferrer will need to exploit it by again venturing out of his comfort zone and taking it to Djokovic before he gets bested on the baseline: by charging the net.
A surprising statistic to many might be that David has a win percentage of 76 percent at the net over the course of his five matches to the semifinals in Melbourne. Ferrer will only increase his likelihood of keeping the score tight by shortening points and halting Djokovic's metronomic rhythm, despite the fact that it's not a predominant part of his game—numbers just don't lie.
Lastly, of utmost importance to any hint of success for the 30-year-old Ferrer is his return, which has always been a complete part of his game. He is currently sitting in fifth position on the ATP tour for most second-serve return points won and in fourth position for return games won.
The best stat remains to be said: he leads all other players at the 2013 Australian Open for second-serve return points won. A dogged effort, particularly for the vertically challenged Ferrer (some kick serves get up as high as your head).
This directly factors into a revamped net strategy, as he may position himself to take a short, wide cut in the court with an inside-out forehand—a hugely successful strategy employed by Wawrinka—and put all the pressure on Novak to come up with the goods on a pass.
Act Confident, Feel Confident
We know who the favorite is in this semifinal match. How can you argue with a guy who is 4-0 against you in Majors? Who has won his last 19 matches in Rod Laver Arena? Djokovic is the ultimate challenge for Ferrer: Using an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as a rudimentary analogy, David is essentially The Terminator's T-800 to Djokovic's T-1000.
But Ferrer isn't called the Beast, the Bulldog and the Ultimate Warrior for nothing. Even if Djokovic is likely to win in three, don't expect a surrender.
The most important thing Ferrer can do is to minimize any moments of dwindling focus or dropping level of stroke quality. To do so, he'll need to avoid getting down on himself like he did in his five-set match against Nicolas Almagro (which he may have very well lost had Almagro not started to wane physically and emotionally).
Is David Ferrer the best player never to win a Slam?
How can he do that? With more belief.
When the ATP rankings are released next Monday morning, David Ferrer will be the new World No. 4, overtaking countryman Rafael Nadal after his withdrawal from the beginning of the 2013 season.
A monster achievement in an era of some of the greatest players of all time.
Yet Ferrer has a hard time taking his newfound position inside the Top Four to heart. After his easy win over Japan's Kei Nishikori in the fourth round last Sunday, Ferrer was hesitant to acknowledge himself as truly belonging in the world's Top Four (from NDTV Sports):
I am top four because Rafael has been injured a long time. It's true... I think the top four, they are better. It's my opinion. But I am trying to win every match. The results, are there, no? I'm not making something up. It's very difficult for me to win a Grand Slam because there are the top four. At this time they are better than the other players.
And what do you think Nishikori was thinking when he hobbled off the court after a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 clubbing at the hands of the Spaniard?
We know Ferrer is humble, but part of sportsmanship is gamesmanship; you don't have to be a jerk to be convinced of your distinguished aptitude. He may not be as divine as Federer, as physically gifted as Djokovic, as imaginative as Murray or as ironclad and unrelenting as Nadal—the man who's spot he now owns—nonetheless, he belongs where he stands if based off of nothing but his work ethic alone.
And that's exactly the problem with Ferrer's mentality: David cannot merely stagnate in that No. 4 spot if he wants a chance at dethroning tennis' equivalent to the Beatles, but rather he must adopt the notion that he has earned it, challenging those above him with commanding perseverance.
If he can do that, then he always has a shot, no matter how small or improbable. Big things can come in little packages, but he has to imitate the obliviousness of the bulldog in which he is so often nicknamed after: while he's fighting for his life on the tennis court, he must be unaware of his diminished size.
In his mind, he has to appear bigger than both the credit he gives himself and the dwarfed shadow he casts on the court.