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By Erik Gudris

David Ferrer (February 26th, 2013) -- David Ferrer has been called many things in his long career. A "terrier", a "bulldozer", a "bulldog", a "shark", and plenty of other animals as well. These of course have all been well-meaning attempts by some to describe Ferrer's "never say die" determination and gritty style of play on court.

But Spain's No. 1 player is a title that Ferrer is probably still getting used to as he prepares to defend his title at this week's ATP 500 event in Acapulco.

Rafael Nadal, the man who used to hold that position, as well as World No. 1, is also in Acapulco this week. Nadal is looking to build on his momentum from winning in Sao Paulo as he makes his return to action from a knee injury that sidelined him since Wimbledon last year.

The hope, at least for organizers and local fans, is that Ferrer and Nadal will meet in the finals. If Ferrer himself is looking forward to that possible 21st meeting with Nadal is another question. Nadal currently leads the overall head to head 16-4 and hasn't dropped a set to Ferrer in two years. And though Ferrer won over a hobbled Nadal in Melbourne in straight sets back in 2010, Ferrer has only managed to beat Nadal one time on clay during their very first meeting in Stuttgart back in 2004.

While Ferrer has professed his tremendous respect for Nadal numerous times, there is an argument to be made if Ferrer perhaps has been too deferential to his younger Davis Cup teammate. Beating Nadal on clay is likely the most difficult challenge that there is in men's tennis. But that Ferrer has trouble winning a set off of Nadal on dirt is a troubling constant for the man many consider the second best clay court player next to his compatriot.

"I think you can win a set against Rafa, but there is a difference between winning a set and winning a match," said Ferrer before their meeting in Paris last spring. "Winning a match against Rafa is almost impossible. He is in such good shape." (Source: AFP).

But things are different now. Nadal is still not at 100% and his lack of match play showed during his week in Sao Paulo where he struggled with inconsistency. The opportunity is there for Ferrer this week should he and Nadal meet, but will Ferrer rise to the occasion? He proved during his win over Nadal in Melbourne that he's not afraid to close out a match even over an injured friend. But facing that same friend on a surface that Nadal dominates, and finding a way to win, would be a huge breakthrough for Ferrer.

There's also an added wrinkle to this usual plot line in that it is now Ferrer who is Spain's No. 1. While Nadal continues to field questions about his health and possible schedule moving forward, Ferrer will be under the microscope even more as he tries to take advantage of his coveted No. 4 ranking. Will he close the gap against the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer? Or will he be content to still play the role of "underdog" - always well-respected but often left behind when it comes to contending for the sport's biggest titles?

A win over Nadal would certainly boost Ferrer's confidence as he heads later into the European clay court season where he stands to likely be ranked No. 4 heading into Roland Garros. As he closes in on turning 31 in April, Ferrer's slim chances at winning an elusive first Major will be helped by his high ranking, but only if Ferrer truly believes he can defeat the very best.

Nadal will not give him anything, but if Ferrer is to make a serious challenge for the biggest clay court title of them all, he will have to make his move soon. Perhaps it could all start this week at the event Ferrer has owned the last three years near the sandy beaches of Acapulco.

(Photo Credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve)

 

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