Commentary

Juan Carlos Ferrero's special home

Updated: May 27, 2012, 4:40 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- The rakishly over-the-top lefty French qualifier, looking for his very first Grand Slam match victory, pumped his fist and growled in the direction of his supporters around Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy broke Juan Carlos Ferrero's opening serve -- at love, no less -- and certainly, the 25-year-old could be forgiven for getting a little ahead of himself. Ferrero, meanwhile, calmly walked to the other side of the net, doing his best to erase the memory of a double-fault and a backhand that found the net.

About a half-hour later Sunday, after Ferrero had won six straight games to take the first set, as he watched a De Veigy service return sail long. Again, Ferrero betrayed little emotion, just an almost imperceptible hop in his step as he returned to his changeover chair.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Ferrero
AP Photo/Riccardo De LucaA long time ago, Juan Carlos Ferrero was once the top-ranked player in the world.

Ferrero won 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 and will play Marin Cilic in the second round. Cilic, the No. 21 seed, will be favored to win, but it would hardly be an upset if he lost.

For Ferrero has been coming to his second home for two decades. After winning a minor tournament in Spain at the age of 12, his father Eduardo brought him here in 1992. He has vivid memories, too, of the 1994 all-Spaniard final between Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui. Four years later, Ferrero reached the junior final here.

Arms crossed, leaning on the edge of a leather chair amid the palms of the interview area, he explained the hold that this place has on him.

"Roland Garros in Spain is very famous," Ferrero told ESPN.com. "We've got many players that have won the tournament. When I start to get the great results, I think, 'Yes, I can win.' But at 12? No. It is very difficult to think it as a child.

"But after I win the tournament, it was like, 'Ooof! I did it.'"

Yes, once upon a time, the elegant Spaniard was invincible on this burnt red clay. Nine years ago here at Roland Garros, in a single fortnight, he fashioned an enduring legacy. He was the 2003 French Open champion and seemed destined to follow Gustavo Kuerten as the next King of Clay.

I can still remember walking into an Italian restaurant a month later in central London and seeing Ferrero sharing a meal with another famous friend, golfer Sergio Garcia. They chatted easily, both at the top of their respective professions, true peers. Ferrero was still beaming, awash in the emotions of what turned out to be the first and only major of Ferrero's career.

In retrospect, it's easy to forget that Ferrero was once tracking like another rising young Spanish comet we have come to know. Incredibly, Ferrero reached the semifinals in each of his first four main-draw appearances at Roland Garros, a blazing start that would soon be extinguished by Rafael Nadal.

Ferrero didn't know it at the time -- none of us did -- but the window of opportunity was cracked open, oh, so briefly. In a span of eight majors, beginning with that 2003 French Open, Ferrero, Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio and Marat Safin won half of them.

And then the window snapped shut.

• Roger Federer would win the first major of his career at Wimbledon one month after Ferrero's breakthrough.

• Nadal, still a teenager, won his first French Open in 2005.

• Novak Djokovic's first major came at the 2008 Australian Open.

The big three have won 27 of the past 28 Grand Slam singles titles; Juan Martin del Potro's 2009 U.S. Open is the only one they gave back to the field. Men's tennis, by wide consensus, has never been this good at the top. Still, this hasn't stopped former champions like Ferrero from making a nice little living.

Ferrero is 32 years old, but he doesn't look it. He's a good example of the graying of the ATP World Tour. You might be surprised to learn that 37 of the 128 men in the main draw have crossed the threshold of 30. That's an Open era record. He is only the No. 9-ranked Spaniard -- Spain has six players inside the top 25 -- but he's a relatively remarkable No. 41 among ATP players. Despite a laundry list of injuries he's suffered over the years, when he's healthy, he remains a joy to watch.

All of the basic equipment was intact against de Veigy: the killer, sharply angled crosscourt backhand, the ability to defend and a general command of the court. Ferrero often fell into seemingly untenable positions and systematically worked himself back into points, waiting for the inevitable error.

After his triumph at Roland Garros, Ferrero ripped through the field at the U.S. Open (beating Todd Martin, Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi) on his way to the final, where Andy Roddick won his first and only major. Ferrero rose to the No. 1 ranking for a period of eight weeks and has slowly, almost gently, drifted back to earth.

Twelve Apollo astronauts, an even dozen, have traveled 225,000 miles from this planet and walked in the dry dust of the moon. In the past decade of Grand Slam play, only eight men have entered the rarefied air that comes with winning a major.

Ferrero can always say he is one of them.

The International Tennis Federation match notes for Opening Day described Ferrero, Roddick and del Potro as the three active members of the "One Slam Wonder Club."

Well, maybe it's time to remove the (unwitting?) sarcasm and the stigma from that label, a time to pause and celebrate the time when they were champions.

Ferrero said he would decide at the end of this year whether he'll continue playing one more season in 2013.

"I keep loving tennis and love playing like today at Suzanne Lenglen, seeing the people enjoying the tennis," he said. "But it's not just the tennis. The motivation. Physically. Mentally to keep on top. It's almost 15 years in a row. Sometimes, you take the bags and go to the airport, and it's tough."

Ferrero said if he can maintain his current ranking or thereabouts, he'll come back. He doesn't want to see it slide into, say, the 90s and find himself forced to have to qualify for Masters events.

What place do those two unconscious weeks have in his memory?

"In the moment, it is very difficult to think about this," Ferrero said. "You keep it away in your mind. I will think about it when I get retired. Then I can look back and say, 'OK, what I did speaks. I am proud.'"

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.