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Monday, July 1, 2013
All business at all times

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

LONDON -- If it is possible to be simultaneously innocuous and polarizing, then David Ferrer has perfected the contradiction.

He never makes headlines for his personal life. In the game, Ferrer does not toss Bernard Tomic- or Ernests Gulbis-style verbal grenades. When he does speak, it is at such a low volume and with such a bland, skim-milky focus on the task of playing tennis that his post-match interview sessions are hardly attended.

In terms of high-wattage charisma, Ferrer makes Andy Murray look like Eddie Murphy. He plays tennis and carries himself as a professional.

David Ferrer
There's nothing fancy about David Ferrer, which could be a reason he's so efficient.
Yet Ferrer is curiously bothersome to various factions of the tennis community, the ones frustrated that he is a top 5 player, who after Wimbledon will be ranked no lower than world No. 3 -- higher than Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer -- even though, head-to-head, Ferrer is a combined 5-40 against them, 0-14 lifetime against Federer, 0-16 lifetime against Nadal on clay, which by the way is Ferrer's best surface.

Ferrer's high ranking despite a career of futility against the Big Three (he's lost six straight matches to Novak Djokovic) creates the conflict between judging him harshly because his inability to beat the best makes for poor semifinal and final matches and simply appreciating him because he is such hell on everyone else.

To the annoyance and lamentation of those longing to have their sledgehammer rallies interrupted every now and again with a little dazzling variety, Ferrer's metronomic baseline game epitomizes to them not the art and craftsmanship of hard work but the dull homogenization of the modern game.

At 5-foot-9 in a sport increasingly filled with giants, Ferrer is not a spectacular shot-maker, but a punisher who beats his opponents with a relentless volume attack of forehands and backhands that, regardless of how effective, few seem to find aesthetically pleasing.

Nevertheless, it is time, past time, actually, to leave Ferrer alone, to focus on what he is instead of what he isn't.

Perhaps better said, it is time to take full notice of him, and enjoy him for the truly great player that he has become.

In beating Ivan Dodig in a tense, four-set battle, Ferrer reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the seventh straight time. Federer can no longer say that, and neither can Nadal. Only Djokovic and Andy Murray have longer active streaks.

Even more remarkable about the 30-year old Ferrer is that over his first 36 Grand Slam events, he made the quarters just five times.

Ferrer's past two matches, his victory over Dodig and his pulsating, third-round win over Alexandr Dolgopolov, served as a tribute to the Ferrer way: substance over style, steak over sizzle.

One might think, in an age of style, that Ferrer's dark intensity for the work instead of the commercials would appeal to a public tired of bling. Ferrer's unsentimental conditioning and bludgeoning is akin to getting one's hands dirty as a mark of honor.

Against Dodig, the massive serving Croat, Ferrer absorbed a barrage of 130 mph serves, rockets that cut through the air as the crowd gasped. Sometimes, Ferrer would lunge and fall to the grass trying to connect unsuccessfully. In a tournament of upsets -- during down moments in the match, the scores of Sabine Lisicki' s brewing upset over Serena Williams flashed across the scoreboard -- it appeared that Dodig was ready to add Ferrer to the list of casualties.

After losing the first set and being pushed to a tiebreak in the second, Ferrer had a moment that would have made Andre Agassi -- arguably the greatest returner in the history of the game -- beam. Ferrer took Dodig's serves and returned them, desperately and unglamorously, and piece by piece, shot by shot, disarmed Dodig, surviving the second set, and then winning 12 of the next 14 games and the match.

Against Dolgopolov, the hope was that the shot-maker would be steady enough to give the punisher a match, for anyone who's ever seen Dolgopolov play knows that whether he wins 7-6 or loses 6-1, he will produce at least one spectacular exchange worth the price of admission. Dolgopolov has spectacular cornered, but his highlight-reel sensibilities couldn't handle Ferrer.

The match wound up being perhaps the most entertaining of the tournament, one full of style and power and scintillating contrasts, and in the end, the unspectacular professional Ferrer overcame the talented showman Dolgopolov in five sets 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2), 2-6, 6-1, 6-2.

Dolgopolov, one of the game's great showmen, captivated the crowd in the same fashion as Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. At 6-foot and just 160 pounds, he possesses an unlimited array of shots with unusual power, a wonderful contrast to Ferrer, who solemnly attacked the flamboyant Dolgopolov as though he were chopping down a redwood.

At one point, it appeared that Dolgopolov, clearly both more talented and less disciplined had controlled the match. In the third set, he unleashed the full display of his unpredictable, eclectic game, breaking Ferrer in the opening game and racing out to a 5-1 lead, dazzling the crowd with 125 mph first serves -- 15 aces on the day, 56 total winners -- sliding squash shots and 62 mph second serves. He blistered forehands and even an ill-advised, jumping, down-line backhand on a short ball.

Ferrer offered no facial expressions, showed no frustration, no outward emotion that matters were slowly getting away.

A year ago in separate post-match interviews after beating Dolgopolov, both Nadal and Djokovic came to the same conclusion. Call it the Showman's Achilles: at some point, two of the greatest players in history said, the showman is going to leave the door open by being too cute, too cavalier, playing the wrong flamboyant shot, taking the wrong risk at the wrong time.

A set from advancing, Dolgopolov danced, carelessly and fatally as the altitude increased, and the Ferrer attributes -- the ferocious concentration, the glaring, tremendous fight -- began to wear on the showman.

At one point, Dolgopolov's swashbuckling even seemed to enrage Ferrer.

Perhaps the overachieving professional might have been offended that a player of Dolgopolov's obvious natural gifts could be so carefree given the stakes, offended that Dolgopolov should know better than to encourage his circus flair, given the importance of the match. It was flair that began to crumble around him as the moments grew in importance.

In the end, there were the terrific moments that defined both players, the showman playing to the crowd, dropping both a 120 mph ace to stay alive as well as an ill-fated, leaping, two-handed tomahawk overhead at 2-4 30-30 that gave Ferrer a break point.

It was the kind of shot that would vindicate anyone who believes that Dolgopolov is one of the most exciting players in the game, but not exactly serious enough and focused enough a player to win.

And there was Ferrer, grimly and joylessly absorbing an afternoon of his own mistakes (39 unforced errors, eight double faults) by expecting the tree to eventually fall, which it did.

Dolgopolov received the bigger ovation when it ended, just as during the next match Dodig received the style points from the crowd for his 133 mph serve.

Nevertheless, as has been the case so many times over the past two years, it is Ferrer, unspectacular and unsmiling, who has a match on Wednesday.