Roberto Bautista Agut has definitely raised his floor this year. He made his first major quarterfinal. He almost made his third Masters 1000 semifinal, but John Isner turned him back in a pair of tiebreakers on Wednesday. Nevertheless, Bautista Agut made his fourth Masters quarterfinal. This is the first tennis season in which Bautista Agut, 30, made both a major quarterfinal and a Masters quarterfinal. Like several other ATP tennis players in recent years, RBA is showing that growing older often means getting better, not worse. Age is offering lessons connected to experience which bring forth improved results.
Yet, after his win over Novak Djokovic and then his loss to Isner, I find RBA to be a more complicated puzzle than ever before. On one hand, his improvement is plain for all to see. I would agree with the general line of thought which says that he always had the game to be a quarterfinal-level player at important tournaments. He has finally reached that standard and could very realistically maintain it. If you are a quarterfinal-level player, you’re damn good.
Nothing I am about to say should be taken to mean that I think RBA is a mug, a tomato can, a “bin man,” a player whose presence in a draw should be welcomed by other top performers.
I do have to put forth an inconvenient and uncomfortable statement which has to at least be wrestled with — if not agreed with — after his exit from Miami.
That statement is as follows: Roberto Bautista Agut has not yet become the player David Ferrer managed to become.
Let that statement sink in for a little bit. I can imagine how that might feel almost like a subtle dig, a veiled criticism… but it isn’t meant to be a criticism at all.
Yes, David Ferrer struggled mightily against the Big 3. We know this. When he played the Big 3, his limitations were exposed. Again, that might seem like a criticism, but it’s merely reality… a reality shared by a vast ocean of ATP pros over the past 15 years.
This is the main criticism of Ferrer as a tennis player in his highly impressive career: On the few occasions when a Big 3 opponent (also Andy Murray) was struggling in an important match, and it briefly seemed that Ferrer had a pathway to victory, he could not seize that small handful of moments. That is fundamentally the one part of Ferrer’s career he probably wishes he could have back. Other than that, however, it is hard to find too many things to regret about the way Ferrer’s career panned out.
One central aspect of Ferrer’s career — which has over 730 match wins — is that he was very consistent at beating non-Big 3/Murray opponents on tour, which is precisely how he became a fixture in the top eight and made large numbers of major and Masters 1000 quarterfinals: 17 major quarters, 45 Masters quarters, with six major semifinals and 18 Masters semis. Ferrer might have made only one major final and won only one Masters title — the proof of his limitations in the face of the Big 3 and Murray — but all those quarters and semis show how regularly good he was against everyone else.
It is true that playing John Isner — especially in North America — is a lottery in a best-of-three-set match. It is not a terrible failure or a bad loss for Bautista Agut to have fallen to Isner. Yet, this IS the essential difference, broadly applied over a full career, between RBA and Ferrer.
This is why Ferrer realized so much of his potential. This is why Ferrer transformed his skills and strengths into a substantial collection of results.
Bautista Agut has crafted a perfectly solid, respectable and undeniably successful career. The Isner loss isn’t bad in and of itself, but it does reflect how RBA hasn’t been as good as Ferrer at “beating everyone outside the Big 3.” The loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open was another example.
Is this criticism? I personally don’t feel it is. I am merely drawing a distinction between this career here and that career over there, illustrating the heights to which Ferrer climbed and the heights RBA has not yet attained.
Why do I bother to make this distinction?
When assessing RBA’s win over Djokovic, it is true that RBA earned his win, was the objectively better and more consistent player, and — it is worth noting — backed up a win in Doha with another one just two months later. Bravo to RBA for forging this achievement — I mean that sincerely.
Yet, the emphasis on RBA being a “poor man’s David Ferrer” — while sounding either critical or dismissive if not both — is merely meant to underscore a basic point: As much as RBA earned that win, I think the match said slightly more about Djokovic’s level of play than RBA’s. I think one can richly compliment RBA for his win and yet note that Djokovic allowed that match to slip away, chiefly with some errors at net a more focused iteration of Djokovic wouldn’t ordinarily make.
Roberto Bautista Agut has been through a lot of suffering and heartbreak in recent months. His mother died just 10 months ago. He is surely offering inspiration to people in Spain and around the world who have had to deal with the recent loss of a parent or loved one. RBA is a thoroughly decent and highly respected player, by all accounts. It has been heartwarming and enjoyable to see him improve his game in 2019.
Nevertheless, David Ferrer’s flashes of brilliance against Alexander Zverev in Miami, combined with RBA’s loss to Isner in the Miami Open quarterfinals, do underscore a few essential points about why these two Spanish players with very similar styles have acquired specific career trajectories.