David Ferrer beat Jo-Wilfred Tsonga to advance to the French Open finals on Friday, his first-ever trip past the semis in a Grand Slam tournament. That's good news for Ferrer: No matter what happens from here, he'll walk out of Roland Garros having achieved a career first.
But that new horizon Ferrer has reached will be his only new horizon of the weekend, or at least that's what most people will have you believe. Matched up with his fellow countryman and seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal in the final, Ferrer should accept his fate, take his beating and be happy he even made it this far. Right? RIGHT!?
I'm not saying David Ferrer will beat Rafael Nadal on Sunday, and I'm certainly not telling you to go place a wager on him (though his plus-600 payout at Bovada looks way more tempting than Nadal's minus-1100). All I'm saying is that Ferrer stands a chance, that he'll put up a fight and that counting him out before the first serve is a grave mistake.
Predicting Nadal to struggle has treated me poorly this tournament, so there's a chance I might be crazy here. But there's also a chance I'm well-informed. Nadal's play in the past few rounds has been nothing short of spectacular, but it hasn't wiped my memory of his early struggles. Those were very recent and very real; I forgive, but I never forget.
Nadal is famously dominant on clay, a surface he's beaten Ferrer on 16 times in 17 tries. Ferrer's lone victory came in their first-ever meeting, nine long years ago in Stuttgart, Germany. It might as well have never happened.
But this time, Ferrer has a few things working in his favor. Not advantages, per se, but benefits he hasn't enjoyed in his 16 consecutive clay-court losses. He has fragments of hope and optimism.
More than anything else, there's the form Ferrer has shown in Roland Garros thus far. Ferrer's always been on the outside looking in compared to tennis' super friends (Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic), but he's been a top-five player in the world for a long time. Which makes this statement all the more impressive: He's never looked quite this good.
Ferrer's first Grand Slam final may have come, in part, through luck of the draw, but it also came through his impeccable play. Eighteen sets into the tournament and he's 18-0, winning each of his six matches with relative ease. Again, the level of competition has been questionable, but in a Grand Slam event, sweeping one's way to the final is unprecedented.
By contrast, Rafael Nadal has needed 22 sets to reach the final, winning his requisite 18 with a little more conflict than his opponent. Two of those losses came early, and two came against the world's best player, so they don't necessarily indicate poor form, but they have certainly tired Rafa out a little bit. Considering he's still working his way back from an injury, is two days enough to bounce back from that epic, five-match marathon with Djokovic?
Past his present form, Ferrer has the whole "once in a lifetime desperation" thing working in his favor too. A win here would mean a lot to Nadal, but it would mean the world to the man across the net. Rafa's been here before, which we often use as a positive platitude, but in Sunday that might actually work against the seven-time champ.
Ferrer has worked his whole career for this moment. This is the denouement of all his hard work. The stars were aligned in his draw. When will he ever again avoid the Big Four until the final? If it took him this long to make it here, when will he ever make it back?
Don't expect Ferrer to pull any punches on Sunday, a match that will define every aspect of his career. Will he be able to tell his grandkids that he was a Grand Slam-winning tennis player? Or will his legacy live on through lists of the greatest non-champions ever?
Ferrer and Nadal met each other, on clay, less than a month before this match, at the BNL d'Italia. Nadal won the best-of-three contest in three sets, the pair trading 6-4 wins in the first two before Rafa pulled away in the rubber. But in winning that set, Ferrer found vulnerability in post-injury Nadal and sensed that there might be an opening for him at this year's French. Even in defeat, that match helped propel him through his first six matches with ease.
Now, closer than he's ever been to glory, there aren't four great players in Ferrer's way. Just one. One ailing player and three measly sets between a man and his long-deserved trophy.
If you think this story has a quiet ending, you haven't been paying attention.