The significance of Thursday’s David Ferrer-Rafael Nadal match in Barcelona is not — and was not, and will not be — the fact that one player won or the other one lost. The significance lies in the fact that they got to play each other once more before Ferrer’s retirement, to be made official at the end of his run in the Madrid Open in May.
Once more on Spanish soil, in front of family and friends and an adoring nation which has gained so much joy from both men this century, Ferrer and Nadal were able to cover all the angles and dimensions of a clay court and show what they have been able to do so conspicuously well for more than a decade.
Some days, the scoreboard matters. This day was more about the chance for both men to play each other, to remind each other of their shared journeys on tour, and to shake hands at net as friends and fellow competitors.
As Nadal and Ferrer met once more in Barcelona — once more before the end of Ferrer’s career — what can we take away from the occasion in a way which either magnifies or sheds new light on Ferrer’s tennis journey?
I offer this: Much as Basel is Roger Federer’s home tournament — an event he will play not for the points, but for the importance of playing in front of home-nation fans — Barcelona occupies a similar place. The tournament named center court Pista Rafa Nadal. That’s a special relationship between a player and a tournament, situated within a larger community.
If you therefore consider Barcelona an “important” tournament — important because of the personal meaning for Nadal and also Ferrer as Spaniards, not because of the global prestige — you might be surprised by this next statement:
Of the 32 matches played between Rafa and Ferru, only TWO (including Thursday’s meeting in Barcelona) were not at “important” tournaments.
Barcelona included six matches if you count Thursday’s meeting. A total of 24 other matches occurred in one of three contexts: at the majors, at Masters 1000s, or at the ATP Finals (formerly known as the Tennis Masters Cup).
Only Acapulco (2013) and Stuttgart (2004) provided meetings between these Spaniards in which the local (Barcelona) or global (top-tier tournaments) meaning of the event was less than substantial. Even then, the Acapulco match was a final, so that was for a title.
You could, therefore, make the case that the only comparatively insignificant match out of 32 played between Nadal and Ferrer was their first, in 2004, when Nadal was 18.
Playing Nadal one more time this week in Barcelona reminded Ferrer of this next point; instructively, it should remind tennis fans around the world of the same point: If Ferrer had lived in an era without Nadal, he probably would have won at least one Roland Garros title. That is debatable, but when you realize that Ferrer ran into Nadal four separate times in Paris, all in the quarterfinals or later, the reality of a world without Nadal probably would have enabled Ferrer to make three or four finals. Novak Djokovic would have been waiting in some of them, but in 2005, Mariano Puerta would have been Ferrer’s opponent. That’s the one he might have claimed.
Beyond the Roland Garros question, consider how many times — a lot — that Nadal stopped Ferrer at a Masters 1000. Among the various categories of tournaments they played in 32 matches, the Masters 1000s had the most matches, at 14. Nadal went 12-2, his only losses being the 2013 Bercy semifinals and 2014 Monte Carlo quarterfinals.
Again, imagine a world without Nadal. That’s a world in which David Ferrer would have piled up a lot of significant trophies, because Ferrer was very consistent in his prime, easily good enough to relentlessly make quarters and semis, while occasionally making a final.
Nadal — like Djokovic and Roger Federer — often stood in his way.
Nadal was there to stand in the way the one time Ferrer made the final of Roland Garros in 2013.
Don’t feel too bad for David Ferrer. He has made over $31 million in his highly impressive career. Meeting Rafael Nadal one more time on Thursday in Barcelona does remind us how spectacularly great Nadal has been, but it also reminds us how often David Ferrer made a deep tournament run and gained the chance to play him.
That is Ferrer’s misfortune in one sense, but also his privilege in another.
Holding those two realities together, in tension with one another, is part of the fuller story of David Ferrer’s tennis story.
One more meeting with Rafa enables us to retain that story and pass it on to future generations of tennis fans when they ask us who David Ferrer was as a tennis player.