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David Ferrer and the Flight Through “Vulture Culture”

By: Andrew Eccles

Full disclosure: for a long time, I did not care for David Ferrer’s tennis. In this, I have hardly been alone. For a player who has so consistently challenged at the top level of our sport, it is strange that the diminutive Spaniard has yet to drum up the same fervour compared to other members of what Marin Cilic calls the “second line” behind the Big Four.

In a time known as a “Golden Age” of men’s tennis, it has been difficult to shine in the long shadow of the now fractured Four – but Ferrer’s efforts aren’t merely ignored or overlooked. They have been disdained.

Have we been unfair on Ferrer? I believe we have.

Ferrer’s strength relies on what is relentlessly described as his “doggedness.” He has neither the flashy power of many of his fellow competitors nor one signature weapon. In place of that is a full collection of shots that are both reliable and strong. His legs carry him around the court with fantastic speed. He moves his opponents around the court, spinning a web that allows him to choose between hitting a subtle winner or draw an error from his exhausted foe. His matches can be long, sweat-drenched wars of attrition that, depending on your predispositions as a viewer, are either exquisite or torturous.

For his opponents, it is undoubtedly the latter. Roger Federer has described Ferrer as the best returner in the sport. Granted, this statement predated the rise of Novak Djokovic, but if the Serb is Return (of the) King then Ferrer is next in line to the throne. The idea of “making your opponent hit one more shot” is one repeated to death, and rightly so. If the serve is the most important shot in the men’s game, then being able to neutralize it is surely a formidable weapon.

Ferrer has undeniable athletic virtues – what is it that tempers our praise?

I blame the “vulture” culture. Vulture culture is an attitude rampant within tennis coverage and fandom. It is a dismissal of players who win tournaments without defeating one of the Big Four or who win by defeating an injured, tired, distracted, jetlagged, too-contented, too-frustrated or otherwise illegitimate member of the same group. We are all guilty of this dismissal. of the “yes, he beat him, but…” argument.

I’m not saying this argument is universally invalid; it absolutely isn’t. Players do get injured; lower ranked players do get lucky breaks that they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. The context of a win or loss does matter. It becomes dangerous when it is applied to players who have qualified for the World Tour Finals five times – burgeoning on six – or those who have been floating around the Top 10 for seven years.

Then if David Ferrer is met with disdain “because he is a vulture,” the question must be asked: what is so bad about vultures?

One can just as easily appreciate Ferrer for the very consistency for which he is so often mocked. He may be Mr. Quarter-Final, but there is something to be said about a player earning his or her own luck.

It is for this reason that I dismiss criticism of, say, Marion Bartoli’s Wimbledon win. Far from a major debutante, she had a history of dragging herself into late stages of Grand Slams; why not go one step further on her last hurrah? What, exactly, are the grounds for discounting her victory? There are none; a player cannot be blamed for defeating the opposition presented to them.

I’m not sure Ferrer will ever get his Bartoli moment. The fearless Frenchwoman has an undoubted mental edge on the battle-weary Spaniard. The former No. 3 has a tendency to wilt from a winning position, a big weakness that has been his major flaw. His head-to-heads with the best players in the game are laughably one-sided, most notably his winless record against Federer, despite taking seven of those sixteen matches to three sets.

Ferrer has reached the finals of seven Masters 1000 events. In six of those finals he faced one of the Big Four, and lost. Two of those losses were in hard fought three-setters, one ending in a gut-wrenching collapse in a deciding tiebreak. But the fact remains: he did win one. Why? Because he kept getting himself there, finally drawing a Janowicz over a genius.

That trophy, from Paris 2012, is still in his cabinet. No asterisk engraved.

Does Ferrer deserve disdain for being the late-round opponent the top players love to beat? For being the guy who we often roll our eyes at and say, “there’s a foregone conclusion?”

He deserves our admiration for taking the knocks and getting back up again. For working to be in prime position to earn his own luck should a big kill fall at his feet.

Soar on, lonely vulture. When you win big, you’ve earned it.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @BackSwings!

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