Ferrer Steps Out of the Shadows
by Pedro Hernandez|
The First Qin Emperor would not have been disappointed with warrior David Ferrer. He probably would have immortalized him in his stunning mausoleum as one of his best generals at the head of a column of the incredible terracotta army. Centuries later, as well as those warriors, David Ferrer has just been discovered.
To dig into his past, into his inner self, is to discover a brave, demanding person, a natural-born competitor who has always remained loyal to those closest to him.
Ferrer grew up surrounded by tennis. His elder brother, Javier, was Spain's 12 and under champion and he himself earned a sports scholarship in Barcelona after promising junior results. But the transition from the junior circuit to professional tennis proved to be a very hard test.
In 1999 in his home town of Javea, Ferrer endured many periods of self doubt. Little progress was made, results weren't coming and hard questions about his future abounded. Each morning Ferrer would arrive at practice riding his small motorcycle, but within minutes it was obvious to coach Javier Piles that his interest had waned. Piles, who remains Ferrer's coach, employed drastic measures to motivate his young charge.
"When he didn't want to work I would lock him up in a dark room of two by two meters and I would put a lock on it so he couldn't get out," says Piles. "It was the room where we would store the tennis balls. I would tell him that his working schedule was from 9 to 12 and that if he didn't want to work he would remain there punished. I would give him a piece of bread and a bottle of water through the bars of a small window. After a few minutes we would hear David asking other trainers from the club for some help to get out but we wouldn't pay any attention."
Upon reflection, the punishment room was a metaphor of Ferrer's potential: Many people knew of his promise, yet no one seemingly could unlock it. Disenchanted, Ferrer hung up his racquets and took a job as a construction worker. "I wanted to quit tennis, but I didn't give up going out with my friends, so my father told me that if I needed money to have fun, I should make it working," Ferrer says. "I think in a week I learned to value many things. That is something difficult to achieve when you are 17 and have doubts about your future."
Ferrer spent a week loading bricks into a wheelbarrow and working from sunrise to sunset. He was exhausted and his weekly paycheck was just 30 Euros. That night, Ferrer called Piles to tell him that he would be on court at 9 am sharp the following morning.
Having experienced what working life is like for the masses, Ferrer realized that the life of a tennis professional was a more attractive proposition. He dedicated himself to the game and Piles never again had to lock him in the punishment room.
"The room is still there in the club, full of tennis balls," says Ferrer, who is one of the toughest competitors on the ATP Tour. "I think I have been the only tenant and Javier has never again threatened to put me back in," he adds with a laugh. "It was a very complicated stage in my life because, being barely 17, you don't really know what you want. Javier did what he should, like when a teacher punishes a student in school because of his bad behavior. Deep down he just wants his best. Once in there I didn't think much, I just wanted him to open the door so I could try to go train with more strength."
Clearly, Ferrer harbors no grudge toward Piles for his tough and unorthodox action. "Javier is not only my coach, he is already a member of my family. He believed in me even in those difficult moments, when the easiest thing would have been to give up on me and find another player. He helped me get through them and now he has led me into the ATP Top 10."
Piles, a passionate runner, likens Ferrer's progress to a long-distance race rather than a sprint. "The strangest things with David are his contradictions. He is a great competitor but not such a good trainer," Piles says.
Ferrer also lacked confidence in himself. At practice he would hold his own with the likes of Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero, but he always considered himself a much inferior player than them. "We would go play a tournament and David would win a match 6-1, 6-1," Piles says. "He would come out saying his opponent was really good but he never valued how good he was. I would tell him that his opponent was really good but that he had won 6-1, 6-1."
That feeling of inferiority convinced Ferrer that only hard work could help him. "He took Lleyton Hewitt as a role model, a player he admires and relates to due to their physical similarities. The sharpness of the Australian, his way of making a battle out of each match, and his warrior attitude both in victory and defeat, reaffirmed the idea that that was the only way to improve himself. I never again had to use the punishment room," Piles explains with a smile.
"I still love seeing Lleyton play, but back then he was a great reference," Ferrer says. "So were Juan Carlos Ferrero and Marat Safin, with whom I trained on many occasions. But I truly saw myself really far from them, although I paid attention to everything they did, and, in some way, they drove me to improve my tennis," Ferrer recalls.
That improvement saw Ferrer reach his first meaningful milestone on the ATP Tour in July 2002. After reaching the Umag final the Spaniard entered the Top 100 for the first time, but even then, the self-doubt was never far away. "He would tell me he was the worst Top 100 player in history, even if that week he had defeated players of the talent of Nalbandian and Coria," Piles recalls.
And yet another contradiction: Once in the Top 100, the confidence-challenged Ferrer played better in bigger tournaments against tougher opposition. With the exception of the Rogers Masters in Canada, Ferrer has reached the quarterfinals or better of all ATP Masters Series tournaments and the fourth round or better at all the Grand Slams, including a semifinal showing at this year's US Open. He is no clay-court specialist, winning the Auckland and Tokyo titles on hard court earlier this year (in addition to his clay title in Bastad).
Along the way he has remained a humble champion, someone who calls his mother after every match and who says he'd be willing to hand out towels just to be a part of the Spanish Davis Cup team. Ferrer topped 40 match wins a year in both 2005 and 2006, and in 2007 he has found even more improvement in his game to reach a career-high South African Airways ATP Ranking of No. 6 en route to qualifying for his first Tennis Masters Cup.
"David has worked as usual but what has happened is that this year he has finished polishing those little details in which we had been working at and all of them have fit together at the same time," Piles says. "He is a more complete player, with a much better serve.
"His personality, in the end, has also helped him. He seems absent-minded, but only in appearance. He could go to the wrong hospital to go pick up his medical tests but deep down he is a very demanding person. He has grown up in the shadow of big tennis players because the level of Spanish tennis is spectacular. But he hasn't been discouraged for not being in the spotlight."
After his third title of the season in Tokyo last month, a friend sent Ferrer a text message: "They are preparing your warrior costume." Ferrer replied: "I hope I can wear it and it fits me well." The terracotta warrior cast is a dream come true for Ferrer. But what it represents is a perfect fit for his core values: courage, excellence, loyalty and competitiveness.
- Deuce 2013
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