Who is the best men’s tennis player in the Open era never to win a grand slam singles title?
Marcelo Rios will figure high in most pundits’ lists, as will David Nalbandian and Miloslav Mecir. Mark Philippoussis, Nikolay Davydenko, Alex Corretja and Tim Henman will find a mention as well, while fans of an earlier generation will vouch for the excellence of Todd Martin and Cedric Pioline, or the “Flying Dutchman” of the 1970s, Tom Okker.
How about David Ferrer? Ah, that Spaniard? The perennial underdog? A warrior, but always an afterthought in this glorious era of tennis, dominated by four of the greatest tennis players to have graced the game and, of course, Stan Wawrinka – a man, who can play tennis for the heavens on his day.
“But he’s a pusher,” his critics usually moan. “He wins by pushing”. True, Ferrer is not the most naturally gifted player in this list, or even among his peers outside the Big Five. He does not hit the ball as cleanly as, say, a Tomas Berdych, nor does he have he flair of a Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
He might not even have a portion of the talent that a Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic or an Ernests Gulbis possess, or the passion – and penchant for trouble – of a Nick Kyrgios. And, of course, at 5ft 9ins, he is the shortest man in the top 55. Victor Estrella Burgos, the No 56, is 5ft 8ins.
Yet, he has been a permanent fixture in the ATP top 10 since October 2010, reaching as high as No 3 in the rankings in 2013. He has featured at the year-ending ATP Tour Finals for six consecutive years.
Among current players, Ferrer, 33, has played more matches (967) than anyone else, save 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer and he is No 4 on the list of active players with most wins (657), behind Federer (1,059), Rafael Nadal (767) and Novak Djokovic (686).
In the all-time list, he is No 15, only five wins behind Michael Chang (662), and ahead of such illustrious names and grand slam champions as Arthur Ashe (634), Thomas Muster (621), Lleyton Hewitt (615), Andy Roddick (612), Mats Wilander (571) and Jim Courier (506).
Coverage of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship
Ferrer is also one of just two active players – the other being his Spanish compatriot Nadal – to have won 300-plus matches on both clay and hard courts. He has now notched up more than 40 wins in a year for 12 consecutive seasons, and that is a testimony to his staggering fitness.
To use a cliche, Ferrer never gives up, relying on his indefatigable stamina to grind down his more gifted opponents.
That stamina, of course, has been built through sheer hard work over the years and Ferrer only seems to be getting better with age. An Aries, he won his first, and as yet only, Masters 1000 title (Paris, 2012) after his 30th birthday and was 31 when he made his first major final at Roland Garros in 2013.
Ferrer’s daily fitness schedule includes a six-mile run, an intense cycling session and a hitting session with older, and heavier, wooden racquets to strengthen his arms. His coach Javier Piles (now former coach), of course, had to take some drastic measures to drill the importance of fitness and hard work into his reluctant ward.
“When David was younger and he didn’t want to work, I used to lock him up in a dark room of two square metres, where we would store the balls,” Piles told the Swiss newspaper Le Temps a couple of years ago. “I would give him a piece of bread and a bottle of water through the bars of the tiny window.”
Ferrer claims it only happened once, when he was 17. The Spaniard was not really enjoying the daily workouts and later decided to quit the academy. Thankfully, a week of loading bricks and working from sunrise to sunset made him realise tennis was a much better proposition and he returned with renewed vigour.
“I wanted to quit tennis, but I didn’t want to give up my nights out with my friends,” Ferrer told Le Temps. “My father made it clear that if I needed pocket money, I would have to work to earn it. So I got a job as a mason. After one week, I realised that tennis wasn’t that hard actually.”
The change of heart has paid off handsomely for Ferrer, and he has won more than US$28.3 million (Dh104m) in prize money since turning professional in 2000, which puts him at No 7 on the all-time list. He earned more than $3.6m in prize money last year alone, winning five titles to take his tally to 26, which is the most for any active player outside that elite Big Four club of Federer (88), Nadal (67), Djokovic (59) and Murray (35).
Ferrer has also played more finals (51) and semi-finals (90) than any other active player outside of the Big Four.
In February, he became the first player since Ivan Lendl in 1985 to win back-to-back titles on different surfaces (Rio Open on clay and the Mexican Open on hard court) in consecutive weeks.
That rare accomplishment, as it usually happens with Ferrer, was overshadowed by Federer’s triumph in Dubai and Nadal’s success in Buenos Aires. Still, his 26 titles in one of the toughest eras of the sport, is the most for any men’s player without a grand slam trophy.
By winning the Vienna Open in October, he surpassed Okker, Jose-Luis Clerc and Brian Gottfried, who finished with 25 titles.
What about the rest? Davydenko comes closest with 23 career titles, while Rios, the only ATP No 1 not to win a grand slam title, had 18. Mecir, Philippoussis, Henman and Nalbandian, all, finished their careers with 11 titles, while Corretja had 17, Martin eight and Pioline five.
So, on the basis of his titles alone, Ferrer deserves to be anointed as the greatest among the major-less, but critics will point to the fact that 25 of his 26 titles have come at the 250 and 500 levels. He has only one Masters and one major final appearance, while the likes of Davydenko, Mecir, Martin or Pioline have done better than that.
Honestly, how many players outside the Big Four have won Masters or majors over the past decade? Yes, Wawrinka has two titles, but the Swiss has made only three appearances in a Masters final and won one. Ferrer has made seven Masters finals, which, again, is the most for any active player outside the Big Four.
So the numbers are loaded heavily in his favour and, if Ferrer were to hang up his boots without winning a major, he would be easily be at the top of the list of greats never to win a grand slam crown. If you do not take our word for it, then take Nadal’s.
“The person who is not respecting David as one of the greatest players of the world – and not for one year, for a long time – it’s because that person doesn’t know anything about tennis,” Nadal said.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport