For David Ferrer, the 2013 French Open has already been the most successful trip to a major championship in his entire career.
The 31-year-old Spaniard waited 13 years to finally make his first Grand Slam final, and he did so in surprisingly dominant fashion. Facing off against the crowd favorite in Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ferrer was calm, cool and completely in control throughout the match. He rendered the man who defeated Roger Federer just one-round prior rudderless, defeating him in a breezy three sets.
It was a long time coming for Ferrer, a consummate pro who could never quite get over the hump. He had made semifinals before, at the U.S. Open last year and again earlier this year at the Australian open. But Ferrer was always pushing against the proverbial glass ceiling, being held down by the greatness of the Roger Federers, Novak Djokovics and Rafael Nadals of the world.
Now, in his first major finals appearance of his career, Ferrer will take on one of those greats in Nadal. The defending French Open champion battled through a classic semifinals matchup with Djokovic Friday, winning in five sets. For some, it was Nadal-Djokovic, replete with the back-and-forth trading of sets into a final thrill ride of a fifth set, that will forever mark their indelible memory of the French Open.
It's hard to blame them. For Ferrer, though, this is a chance of a lifetime. He's facing off against the greatest clay-court player in tennis history, a man who has already won seven titles at Roland Garros. Even with just two players remaining in the tournament, Ferrer is more than a 5-1 underdog, per Bovada.
Those are the types of insurmountable odds that created the phrase "nothing to lose but everything to gain."
How can Ferrer make his first Grand Slam final appearance a successful one? Here's a look at a few things that have to happen for Ferrer to pull off the seemingly impossible.
Ferrer Has to Find Accuracy With Serve
Throughout the tournament, Ferrer has played the most consistent tennis of anyone in the field. He's the only player remaining on either the men's or women's side to not lose a set—a pretty remarkable feat.
The one problem, albeit relatively minor, is that Ferrer has had a propensity to dig himself into holes by double-faulting. His 16 double faults are the fourth most of anyone who made the trip to Roland Garros this year and nearly twice the amount of mistakes made by Nadal.
To put it mildly, Ferrer cannot afford to make those silly mistakes against Nadal. You can't give points away freely against a legend. It's like giving free reign of your house to a noted kleptomaniac and asking him or her to only steal one thing. If you give points freely to Nadal, don't be surprised to come back and find your entire house has been ransacked.
Ferrer has been at his best during this tournament when getting his first serves in play. He won 86 percent of those opportunities against Tommy Robredo in the quarterfinals, a match that took about as long as a mid-Sunday brunch.
What's more, Nadal has bludgeoned opponents on their second serve. The defending French Open champion has won 114 points out of those chances, which is among the most in the tournament. While it's not like getting first serves in would help all that much either—Nadal leads all players with 194 first serves won on return—but it's these types of mistakes that can ruin an outing.
If Ferrer shows control of his serve, perhaps even avoiding the double-fault pitfalls altogether, it should do wonders for him on the scoreboard.
Take Advantage of Nadal Early
It's not exactly a secret that Nadal spent the entirety of his first week struggling to find his form. The three-time defending champion was nowhere to be found—in his place was a guy scrambling against players who have little business being on the same court at Roland Garros.
In fact, Nadal seemed more concerned with his scheduling than anything going on in the tournament. Perhaps he were merely bored with the lackluster competition, because Nadal has turned it on in the subsequent matches.
But there was something notable on the surface that Ferrer might be able to use on Sunday—Nadal has been dreadful in first sets this year. He lost first sets against Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan during the first two rounds and needed a tiebreaker against Fabio Fognini in the third round to get his first straight-sets victory.
What's weird is that there seems to be no concrete reason for Nadal's struggles early in matches. Whether he's just not preparing hard enough for his opponents, or was caught off guard by their spry play early or just needed a little time to warm up, there's a weakness that Ferrer can take advantage of.
That's especially the case with Nadal having battled through a five-set slog with Djokovic in the semis. Spending hours upon hours grinding against the world's top player will take chunk out of anyone's energy, even 48 hours later. In theory, the best time to take advantage of "tired" players is early in the match, when their legs are still a little stiff, and late, when fatigue is starting to kick in.
If Ferrer is able to jump ahead early and steal the first set, he might just be able to see how much gas Nadal has in the tank late.
Play the Best Match of His Life, Have Nadal Struggle With Form
Sometimes, it's not about the real answer not having any one particular key. Ferrer isn't going to defeat Nadal by getting his first serves within the little white chalk lines and by trying to take advantage of the favorite's early-set struggles.
Frankly, that's not going to be enough. Nadal can and has overcome one-set losses more times than we can count, doing so with such an ease that it was impossible to remember how anyone could get ahead of him. And while Nadal has struggled early, it's at least of note that he looked pretty good against Djokovic on Friday.
Ferrer will just need more to hang his hat on. What, you ask? That's tough to say. There are a billion little things that we can point to—a few Nadal winners going just past the chalk line, a twinge of his balky knee creating some mental doubt, leftover fatigue from the Djokovic match, etc.—but none of them alone is a match-deciding factor.
Nadal is a monolith on clay. Facing him in the French Open final would be like if the NBA, by some strange rule change, decided to turn the Heat-Spurs finals series to a one-on-one championship. Tony Parker might be pretty damn good, but he's going to need some luck to take down LeBron James.
Same thing here with Ferrer. There's no one answer, just an amalgam of smaller ones that build into something great. Ferrer has to capture every last fingernail-thin chance to take advantage of a Nadal mistake. He has to pound the baseline better than he ever has, hit more accurate serves and get Nadal on the run rather than the other way around.
Sound impossible? Well, that's Nadal on clay. Ferrer is trying to climb the greatest mountain in all of tennis. Can he do it? Who knows, but at least he finally has a chance.
*All Stats courtesy of the Roland Garros official website.
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