The Mosquito: Juan Carlos Ferrero by Cindy Shmerler
From the June 2001 issue of TENNIS
Increíble. It’s a word that rolls off the tongue of Juan Carlos Ferrero with the same ease that he rolls topspin forehand passing shots beyond the racquets of net-rushing opponents. 'We use it a lot in Spain,' the 21-year-old says of the Spanish word that means incredible and unbelievable and everything in between. 'We all say it. And right now, I really mean it.'
To Ferrero, life is increíble, his tennis is increíble, his bright blue Porsche 911 is increíble, and, most especially, Spain’s victory over Australia in last year’s Davis Cup final was increíble.
'I was only one year in the Davis Cup and suddenly we are in the final,' says Ferrero, who led Spain to its first-ever Cup championship with victories over both Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt. 'Winning my first Davis Cup final at the age of 20, in front of 14,000 people yelling ‘Ferrero, Ferrero’ and ‘Spain, Spain,’ how could this be anything but increíble?'
The wiry Ferrero stretches some 160 pounds over his 6-foot frame, with a mat of frosted blond hair hovering over an angular, friendly face. So far, he’s earned two nicknames from his countrymen: 'Chavalito,' which means little kid, and 'Mosquito,' because of his wiry, spindly build. Yet for all his speed, Ferrero says he never imagined winning mountains of money or hoisting Davis Cup trophies. Indeed, he grew up in Onteniente, a small town to the southwest of Valencia, without a single tennis poster gracing his bedroom wall. He does, however, remember turning on the TV and watching Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg play the Wimbledon finals of 1988 and ’89. Asked if he ever saw Bjorn Borg, Ferrero answers, 'Just a few seconds on film. He won Wimbledon a couple of times?' (Five in a row, but who’s counting?)
Not even after winning his first junior tournament, in Valencia at age 9, or reaching the French Open junior final, in 1998, did Ferrero honestly believe there might be greatness in his future. 'Three years ago, I was so negative because I didn’t have any experience. I never dreamed of being a star,' he says. 'I figured if I work hard and make good performances, then one day, maybe . . . .'
Ferrero’s carousel began to spin in 1999, when he traded success on the Spanish Satellite circuit for his first ATP semifinal in Casablanca. By the time the season was over, he’d leapfrogged from No. 345 in the world to No. 43, the biggest jump into the Top 50 of anyone on tour that year.
Ferrero soon proved himself worthy of inclusion in the ATP’s ballyhooed 'New Balls, Please' ad campaign featuring a group of precocious youngsters that also included Hewitt, Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer, and Marat Safin. Ferrero reached the final in Dubai, then stopped two Grand Slam champions, Rafter and Carlos Moya, en route to the semis in Scottsdale. Both were hard-court events.
A Spaniard comfy on hard courts?
Turns out that Ferrero was tennis-reared in the town of Villena, which 10 years ago had just eight courts -- all hard (it has since added five clay courts). Part of his formative tennis education also included working out briefly with Safin, who’d relocated from Moscow to Valencia when he was a teenager.
'The first time I ever saw him [Ferrero] play was against Moya in Barcelona in ’99,' says Albert Costa, a Davis Cup teammate. 'Moya had just reached No. 1, but Ferrero was playing without any respect. It was just as if he was practicing. He wasn’t nervous at all. At that point, I thought, ‘Whew, he’s going to be good.’'
And not just on hard courts.
After losing in the first round of Roland Garros qualifying in 1999, Ferrero raced all the way to the semis in 2000. Along the way he beat Slava Dosedel (1-6, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4), Mark Philippoussis (who’d knocked off Pete Sampras) and countryman Alex Corretja before finally falling to eventual champion Kuerten, 7-5, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. That effort propelled Ferrero into the No. 7 spot, and he spent the rest of the season flitting around the Top 10. 'I played so many good matches at Roland Garros,' says Ferrero, 'but the fifth set against Dosedel was the best. That match helped me to believe in myself.'
This year, he’ll need that belief system all the more.
'The French Open, it’s a very important tournament for me, because it’s a Grand Slam and it’s on clay,' Ferrero says. 'I know people expect me to do well. But it’s such a difficult tournament because the matches are so long. I’m just 21 years old. I can’t expect everything to happen so soon.'
Certainly, Ferrero could never have expected the kind of attention he got following his Davis Cup success. Last spring in his Cup debut, he crushed Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 and Safin (in a dead rubber) 6-0, 6-3 to lead Spain into the semis against the U.S. After beating Kafelnikov, Ferrero lifted a hand and blew a kiss skyward, a tribute to his mother, Rosario, who died of cancer five years ago. Ferrero then took to the bench and cheered as Corretja, Costa, and Juan Balcells ousted the U.S. to advance to the Cup final for a third time.
But with Corretja’s spotty career record against the Aussies, and his recent struggles fresh in their minds, Spain’s coaches decided to put Ferrero into the lineup for the championship tie, which was played indoors on red clay in Barcelona. After Hewitt beat Costa in the first match, Ferrero took a deep breath and proceeded to wear down Rafter, leading 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 3-1 before Rafter retired after cramping.
When the Balcells-Corretja team surprised Sandon Stolle and Mark Woodforde in the doubles, Ferrero knew it was up to him to close the deal. Minutes before his match against Hewitt, Ferrero stood in the locker room, shaking.
'We all knew how nervous he was,' says Balcells, who, together with Corretja, tried to calm Ferrero’s nerves. 'We kept talking to him, trying to give him advice. We were telling him it was a regular match, nothing special. We were lying, of course, but we had to say something.'
'I was nervous,' Ferrero admits. 'I knew this was the most important match of my life. I had to do well. Everyone in Spain was looking at me -- even the King and Queen. But after two games, the nerves went away and I just played.'
Did he ever.
Ferrero beat Hewitt 6-2, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-4. Before he could say olé, Ferrero found himself at the bottom of a heap of celebrating Spaniards. That night, at the Barcelona discothèque Luz de Gas (Gaslight), the usually reserved Ferrero did a striptease of sorts, yanking off his shirt to the fevered beat of fellow revelers.
'After the Davis Cup, it was completely crazy,' he says. 'When I walk on the street or when I go in some restaurants, everyone says something about me. It’s difficult to understand because five months ago, nobody knew who I was. Now, everyone wants to say hello.'
But that was then. All of the fun and excitement kept Ferrero from being fully prepared for 2001. He lost in the second round of the Australian Open to Andrew Ilie in five sets, then dropped another five-setter to the Netherlands’ Raemon Sluiter as Spain surrendered its Davis Cup championship just two months after Ferrero’s dramatic victory. Ferrero fell again, to Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic, in the first round at Rotterdam.
Then it was on to Dubai -- and a bit of redemption. Ferrero stormed past Jonas Bjorkman, Jiri Novak, Magnus Norman, and Dominik Hrbaty. His final-round opponent was his old practice partner -- and reigning U.S. Open champion -- Safin. Unfortunately, a lower-back injury forced Safin to retire in the second set.
Ferrero, however, couldn’t keep the good times rolling, losing a brutal three-and-a-half-hour match 7-6 (7-3), 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (8-6) to Chilean qualifier Nicolas Massu in Indian Wells in March.
'This year has been difficult in the beginning, because I only had 10 days holiday,' says Ferrero. 'I finished my year late [due to Davis Cup], and then I had to leave for Australia. I didn’t get to spend time with my family and friends, just going to the cinema, driving my car and motorbike through the mountains near my home. You need to do these things to get away from tennis.
'But I also have much to learn. This year, my goal is to get into the Top 5, which I think I can do. I want to get into the Masters [Cup] at the end of the year. To do that, I have to play better on hard courts and indoors. And, of course, the Grand Slams are very important.'
He’s sure made a believer of his fellow Spaniards. 'Juan Carlos is one of the better players of the Spanish Armada,' says Balcells. 'He can definitely be in the Top 10 because he is in such good physical condition. He’s not so big, but he bites.
'Just like a mosquito.'
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