David Ferrer goes fourth but will not conquer

The Spaniard has replaced Rafael Nadal in the top four, but he knows to just enjoy it while he can.

David Ferrer became the fourth-best player in the world this week. Since September 2008, Ferrer is only the third player not named Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to do that.

Ferrer had been as high as No 4 earlier that year, but since then Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling are the only other two to have been there, twice each for different lengths.

Soderling was No 4 for 10 consecutive weeks between January and April 2011, the longest such incursion, but in total, in four years and nearly five months, for only 15 weeks have Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray not constituted the top four in men's tennis.

Number four in the world is a strange ranking in the hierarchy of the best players. The top ranked can be any number of ways: arrogant, aloof, generous, maybe even a little paranoid. Second best must just be frustrating because it is not the best. Third? It is not fourth. And fifth gets you in the phrase "top five".

Fourth? A little irrelevant (and in this era, with a fit Nadal, fourth is just a number, denoting little about how close each of the top four actually is).

Also everyone knows that Ferrer's not really the fourth-best player in the world. Even Ferrer himself is aware of it.

Last month, while in Abu Dhabi for the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, twice in the space of a five-minute press conference he said unequivocally that the top four were just better than him.

It is true. In 12 matches against Nadal, Murray and Djokovic in grand slams, he has won three. He has never played Federer in a major - which is surprising - but he has never beaten him on the tour. Never. So, yes, on current form he may be the best from the rest but it is true, they are better. It is just such a harsh self-assessment that you wish it weren't.

One of the most painful moments in the Australian Open this year was watching Ferrer lose to Djokovic in the semi-final. It wasn't just a loss. It was something far more human and because humans do not just win or lose against each other, it was crueller than just a loss.

In the most inoffensive way possible Djokovic showed Ferrer and the rest of us the limit of his capabilities, the point beyond which he cannot excel. That is never easy to see for anyone. It wasn't just one day either; it felt like one more in a long, unending chain of defeats as lessons.

At one moment, already two sets down, Ferrer sat during a changeover with this blank, maybe sad, stare. In films they sometimes show traumatised soldiers with that kind of stare. It was heart-wrenching, one of the most powerful images of the two weeks.

In that stare was the truth, the truth he knows, the truth we know, the truth he has spoken of publicly, the truth he has accepted. And yet still, here, the truth was being enacted and forced down him all over again. That is what was cruel.

Ferrer is an endearing man, which is what makes his predicament, if that is what it can be called, more complicated. His game is probably not to many tastes, a sweaty, gritty, blue-collar style. It retains the dutifulness of a shift down the mines.

Sometimes its entire tigerish effect can be stirring, as when he came from two sets down to beat Nicolas Almagro in the Australian Open quarter-finals. Later, sweetly, he called it a "miracle". But among the men's current top 10 you would probably pay the least money to watch him play.

But you might not mind hanging out with him for an evening. In an interview with The National last year, Ferrer revealed himself to be a surprisingly well-rounded individual (in terms, strictly, of the scary and narrowly-focused world of athletes).

He talked of his love for reading books and, in the pursuits of man, of sports as secondary.

"The culture is more important than the racket or baseball or football," he said. "We have a chance to travel and visit many cities, and it is good to know something about them.

"I think it is more important to be a thinker than a sportsman. Sports is only a job. My job is to play tennis, but I prefer to make a good thinker than to be better as a sportsman."

One consolatory way of looking at that, in light of him breaking through to a ranking he will likely never go beyond, is that it must make him a pretty special thinker.

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