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By Chris Oddo Photo Credit: Michel Spingler / AP

David Ferrer - 2012 French Open
(June 7, 2012) -- He's long been considered one of the finest clay-courters on the ATP tour. He's also been highly regarded as grinder, a fighter, a blue-collar battler with a heart the size of an oversized Prince racquet, but when you boil it down to its essence, what David Ferrer proves to fans, pundits and fellow players is that size doesn't matter -- at least not as much as we are led to believe.

In an age where racquet-wielding skyscrapers like 6'9" John Isner and 6'6" Juan Martin Del Potro are considered the "new breed" of tennis champion, the 5'9" Ferrer is more than happy to prove to the world that the antiquated version of a champion still exists.

Now at 30 years of age, the tireless Spaniard has finally achieved a milestone he's always coveted. When he defeated Andy Murray 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-2 in yesterday's quarterfinal, Ferrer booked a spot in the French Open semifinals for the first time in ten appearances at Roland Garros. For a clay-courter like Ferrer, who was born and bred on the red dirt of Valencia, Spain, the accomplishment was not lost on him.

Only Andres Gomez, the 1990 French Open champion who made his first trip to the semifinals at Roland Garros in his eleventh appearance, had to wait longer for his first trip to the final four at clay-court mecca.

But when you think about, it makes sense: Ferrer has cultivated a game that is predicated on patience, hard work, endurance, and perseverance -- all the attributes necessary to keep your head up when you are not getting the results you deserve at the Grand Slam event you cherish the most.

In a tennis landscape increasingly populated with NBA-sized bomb-servers, the shortest man inside the top 20 (he’s 5’9” on a good day) has methodically gone about his business of grinding down opponents with a relentless baseline attack. Nothing overtly fancy -- no car commercials or underwear ads either -- just unabashedly intense tennis. Furious Ferrer, or the “little beast” as he’s called (also Ferru), can now hang his hat on the fact that he’s cracked the top four’s stranglehold on Slam semifinals for the second time in six majors.

Nobody else but the little beast can boast that claim.

When he finally finished off Andy Murray yesterday, it was apparent that Ferrer had been waiting for this moment for a while.

You could see it in the ear-to-ear smile that covered his face when Murray's last-ditch backhand on Ferrer's second match point sailed long, and you could hear it in his words afterwards. Ferrer is not a man of many words, preferring to speak with his incessantly churning arms and legs, his grunts and his bristling demeanor, but yesterday he took a moment to express the happiness he felt.

"Well, Roland Garros is very special for me," said Ferrer, "because I remember when Sergi Bruguera, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya [won the French Open title]. This tournament I think is very special for all the Spanish players and also for me."

As far as his chances against Rafael Nadal in the semis? Well, that might explain why Ferrer had taken a moment to smile after the quarterfinals: he knows if he’s to have a chance, he’ll have to push himself to the brink of exhaustion. There’ll be no smiling come Friday.

“I will try and play a beautiful match,” said Ferrer of the upcoming tussle with the King of Clay. “My best tennis.”

Nobody who knows Ferrer would expect anything less. He’s overachieved throughout his whole career, making up for his lack of size with pure ambition and an indomitable will. He’s affectionately been tabbed “The Energizer Bunny” because of his non-stop bouncing between points, but truth be told, this guy is the furthest thing from a bunny that tennis has ever seen.

No, David Ferrer is a far more predatory animal, a vicious pit-bull trained to mangle perhaps, or a prickly bobcat who has just seen her cubs threatened.

More importantly, Ferrer provides a blueprint for all those tennis players out there who think they are being sized out of the sport they love. To watch him is to be inspired to play the game ferociously, to maximize one’s talents.

There’s an old Oscar Wilde saying that goes, “Hard work is but a poor substitute for natural ability.” That’s all well and good, and if you are blessed with the regal game of a Roger Federer by all means embrace it, but for Ferrer the opposite seems more appropriate: “Natural ability is but a poor substitute for hard work.”

Ferrer is living proof of the latter, and at the age of 30, when most tennis players are beyond their peak, he appears to still have plenty to prove.

For fans of old-school, blue-collar tennis, that is great news indeed.


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