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These Callow Brutes

Båstad, Semifinals

(1) Ferrer d. (6) Dimitrov, 6/2 7/5

I am always intrigued by the odd narratives that congeal around a given tennis player.

David Ferrer won his fiftieth match of 2012 in luscious Båstad today, although I should clear up any grammatical confusion by pointing out that only three of these victories actually occurred in luscious Båstad, and only one of them happened today. He is the first man to achieve this feat, in Sweden or not. The fiftieth win (Båstad, today) came against Grigor Dimitrov, who played the Spaniard close for a set, but then collapsed meekly, an eternally popular strategy with young players. This result seemingly bears out one of commonly cherished ideas about Ferrer, which is that as far as Dimitrov and his peers are concerned, the Spaniard remains an unpassable yet highly mobile barrier to the elite level, a lethally-efficient sentry, patrolling the grounds with tireless attention, and a crossbow. The callow brutes have grown belligerent, but for now a stern talking-to is invariably enough to scare them off, especially when it is delivered in sufficiently rapid Spanish.

Available statistics appear to bear this assumption out. In the last twelve months, Ferrer had tough words with young players ten times, and only once did one of them actually stand his ground, and then for no longer than a set.† Three times he was pushed to a tiebreaker (always against Milos Raonic), without dropping any. He saw off Raonic, Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic and Kei Nishikori, among others. (I can extend this timeframe by another month to include his victory over Ryan Harrison at last year’s Wimbledon, in which Ferrer dropped two sets and a tiebreaker, although he did defeat the then-22 Benoit Paire in straight sets the round before.) Being stats, these numbers are of course misleading.

The fact is that unless you’re ranked above him, Ferrer hardly loses at all. In the course of compiling this year’s fifty wins, he has contrived to lose nine times, but only twice to someone ranked lower than himself (Denis Istomin at Indian Wells, and Thomaz Bellucci in Monte Carlo). Yet he is 1-7 against the top four, with the only victory coming over Andy Murray at the French Open. He often plays Murray close, and Djokovic. But he has never beaten Federer in several thousand attempts, and takes sets from Nadal only slightly more often than he wins matches. If nothing else, it suggests that his ranking of No.5 is perfect, although really he could as easily be ranked at six or seven. I assume he would be, had Robin Soderling’s sojourn ended sooner. (This is a fitting moment for such a contention, since it is almost precisely twelve months ago that the Swede thrashed Ferrer in a Båstad final.) Owing to the structure of tournament draws, Ferrer rarely collides with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Tomas Berdych at larger events. He has beaten Juan Martin del Potro twice this year with little difficulty, or, rather, with exactly the kind of difficulty he relishes. What is truly amazing about Ferrer is the barely remitting consistency with which he plays to his abilities.

On the other hand, the bellicose youths aren’t exactly making Ferrer’s alleged role difficult. Their version of crashing the party mostly involves standing around in the front garden, begging to be allowed in. After today’s matches at Newport and Båstad, players born in 1991 or later are a combined 0-9 in ATP level semifinals. This group includes Harrison, Tomic, Dimitrov and Krajinović.‡ (Again there’s statistical trickery afoot. Extending the timeframe would see Raonic and Nishikori included, both of whom have won titles. But for anyone pushing a barrow, stats are a useful way to grease the squeaky wheel.)

For all of them besides Raonic, the main issue seems to be pace. Their shots don’t have enough, and Ferrer’s feet have too much. Dimitrov today couldn’t get enough balls past Ferrer, particularly on clay. He couldn’t serve big enough for long enough, although I suppose one might dub some of his unaccountably slow first serves change-ups, if one were feeling charitable. Too often the Bulgarian’s attack slackened when too many good shots came back – about two – which Ferrer rightly treated as an invitation to move up, from which point he hardly ever relinquished control. Dimitrov strengths are considerable, but few of them are defensive.

Nor are they mental. In the second set, serving at 4/5, Ferrer fell to 15-40. Dimitrov blew both set points with poor backhand returns. From there he never looked in it, and was broken the next game. He lost the match on yet another crosscourt backhand exchange, with the last tumbling flaccidly into the net. It is far too early to call Dimitrov the best player yet to win a title. That accolade probably belongs to Julien Benneteau for the moment. But it is something for him to aim for. To avoid it, he’ll probably need a generous draw that lacks David Ferrer.

Newport, Semifinals

(1) Isner d. (6) Harrison, 7/6 6/3

Some hours later on a remote continent Ryan Harrison fared no better when faced with John Isner, although the problem was a radically different one, originating from a loftier place, plummeting terrifyingly, and scooting through disturbingly when it connected with the surface, which was cunningly fashioned from thousands of blades of grass. It was a problem perfectly tailored to Harrison’s particular weakness, which is that he is not very good at returning tennis balls when they are served at him. He certainly would have fared better returning Ferrer’s serve than Isner’s, whereupon he would have lost more quickly but no less thoroughly. But the Spaniard apparently missed his connecting flight, and the younger American was obliged to play the hand he was dealt. It was a very large hand, and it was holding a howitzer aimed at his chest. What can you do?

Not much, but he still could have played it better, especially in the tiebreak. He could have watched Benjamin Becker earlier in the week, whose upset of Milos Raonic reflected an astute appraisal of the Newport surface, which responds well to low slices, in much the same way that very tall men do not. Instead he supplied Isner with any number of waist-high balls, which Isner gleefully dispatched into the corners. If Harrison found himself at the net, or – more problematically – if Isner found him there, then the balls went past him faster and at waist height. It was a different view, at least. I suppose in the end it didn’t matter much. Harrison won three points on Isner’s first serve, and although not all of those were unreturned, a lot of them were – enough that he finished with a perfect 0/0 return on break points.

Harrison is now 0/5 in ATP semifinals. He played David Ferrer in none of them. But his time will come. And Ferrer will be waiting.

† A young player is here defined as under 23 years.
‡ These stats are from menstennisforums.
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