"Inconspicuous" would be the kindest way to describe the small bungalow that Juan Carlos Ferrero lives in at his tennis academy in central Spain. So modest that if the local estate agent were to stick a photo of it up in his shop window it would barely catch the eye of a passer by.
It’s a nondescript, two bedroom, peach coloured building over looking a flat, featureless farmland.
When he’s not on tour this is where the world number 3 spends most of his time. And he doesn’t even live there alone- he shares accommodation with Israel’s Matos Gil, ranked 598 on the ATP computer.
To be fair Ferrero also owns a rather large home in Valencia which far more befits his status as a millionaire several times over. But when he’s training at the academy – The JC Ferrero Equelite Acedemia de Tenis- The French Open champion likes to keep things unpretentious.
He’s the only world top 10 player based at the academy. In fact he’s the only world top 100 player based there, while others of his stature train among the worlds elite in Florida, California, Monaco or Barcelona, Ferrero is quite happy to remain on the outskirts of Villena, a small unassuming town 30 miles from Costa Blanca in the hills of the Valencia region.
“The big academies in Barcelona have called me many times and asked me to train there” Ferrero says, when asked why he hasn’t, like all his compatriots been enticed to Spain’s Tennis capital.
“But I have always felt very good here. I always felt I have a good coach and good conditions to practice. I was never tempted. I had good results training here and now I am better than the guys practicing in Barcelona. So why should I change ?”
His coach Antonio Martinez, agrees. “Yes, Barcelona is the centre of Tennis” he says, talking though an impromptu interpreter. “But don’t forget that this region has produced two world number one players Juan Carlos and of course Marat Safin who, who grew up here. It’s an area that becoming more important worldwide. Players like David Ferrer and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo come from this area. Juan Carlos is absolutely not missing anything by not being in Barcelona”
One could argue that in Villena, Ferrero is lacking players of his level to hit with. “Juan Carlos became number one in the world without having top 10 or even top 100 players to practice with”, his coach contends.” It’s not in my interests to have lots of top players here. Juan Carlos has demonstrated that it’s possible to be world number one without this”.
Ferrero himself claims that he doesn’t need peers like Moya, Robredo, Mantilla , Corretja or Costa training with him every day. “I am very close to them anyway.” He says. I travel with them all the year and I practice with them when we are on the Tour there aren’t too many players in the world with my level to practice with anyway.”
The other reason Ferrero prefers to stay in the perhaps less inspiring surroundings of Vilenna is that he can remain close to his family home. He was born 20 miles north of the academy site in 1980 in a small town called Onteniente. His father, Eduardo, who now travels to the major tournaments with his son, used to own a small bed linen factory. It was against the walls of this factory that young Juan Carlos first hit a tennis ball.
When he was 9 years old Ferrero met up with his local coach Antonio Martinez, the same man who looks after him today. “When we first met, Toni was strict and very serious” remembers Juan Carlos. “I respected him a lot and we’ve been close friends ever since”. At first the duo, one of the longest running partnerships in current tennis, trained at a small hard-court club also near Vilenna. Then when Ferrero was 14 they started playing at Equelite, a club whose name means “elite team”. “This place was a smaller club back then" recalls Toni. “It just had two clay courts and a small house” Juan Carlos used to come here to play on clay and then had to go to the old club for the gym.”
As Ferrero’s success grew, so did the academy. At first he lived in a 12 square metre room in the main building, next to all the kids. Nowadays thanks to Ferrero’s patronage and financial guarantee, the main house has expanded, there are 13 courts (hard, clay, indoor and artificial grass), a huge gym, a pool a bungalow and a golf course. Ferrero is also investing in a luxury hotel nearby.
We’ve flown out to Spain to meet with the world number 3 while he test the latest models from his racket sponsor, Prince. Steve Davis, the company’s American research and development advisor, looks ready to pull his hair out. He’s only recently arrived from the airport after a long transatlantic flight and right now he’s trying to convince Ferrero of the merits of the new Tour NX Graphite. He’s not having much luck. “If you don’t believe in it, you wont get it” he says, the exasperation just detectable in his otherwise reassuring tone.
Ferrero looks anything but reassured. He’s halfway through the second day of his annual racket testing and he’s having trouble getting to grips, quite literally, with the new bat.
During the next break in play we resume the interview for ACE. The discussion turns to Ferrero’s Sampras-like coolness on court. “I’m not very emotional and I’m happy with this” Juan Carlos says. “I try to keep positive and concentrate all the time. Being cool on the court helps me concentrate. If I become very emotional then maybe I will do things differently than before. I have to stay with the same style because it works”
His coach concurs with this ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach. But he would like to see his protégée display a bit more emotion. “For me it would be better for Juan Carlos to demonstrate more his feelings- his positive feelings, not his negative ones” Toni says. “He can easily improve two or three percent if he’s more positive on court. We’re trying, we’re working on it”.
Two or three percent may not sound like a great deal, but when you’re at Ferrero’s level it can make all the difference. Last year the player won four titles in seven finals, including, most importantly, the French open. After losing to Andy Roddick in the US Open final he became the second ever Spaniard to reach the ATP world number one spot. (Carlos Moya was the first.)
He was also a mainstay of the Spanish team which faced Australia in the Davis cup final in December last year. All told, during his career, he has won a total of 11 titles: eight on clay, two on outdoor hard and one on indoor hard. Even on Wimbledon’s grass (last year) he has reached the fourth round.
This variety of surfaces is what makes him stand out from the crowd of Spanish players on the tour. Toni is keen to stress that unlike most of his compatriots, his player is not a clay court specialist. “The major difference is that he plays very well on almost all surfaces” he says, becoming animated. Other players like Costa and Corretja have major problems adapting their games to hard courts because they grew up playing on clay. Juan Carlos played a lot on hard courts when he was younger. Now he plays better on hard-courts and better on clay courts. He’s more of an all round performer”.
“In fact we have a situation which is very strange for a Spanish player. Juan Carlos finds it more difficult to go from hard courts to clay courts than the opposite way round. Most Spanish players are different; they can’t wait to play on clay courts. So you see Juan Carlos is not an all round clay-court specialist. He’s a complete player.”
Anyone who has seen Ferrero win a match knows that, immediately after victory, he kisses his fingers and reaches up towards the sky. “I kiss to my mum”, he says, “To remember her.” When he was 17, Juan Carlos’ mother Rosario died of breast cancer. The youngster was so devastated that he considered giving up tennis for good. “I took it very badly”, he remembers. “It was the worst moment of my life. I almost left tennis because it was a tremendous blow. But then I thought of carrying on for her because she liked me to play so much. Yes, I thought of giving up tennis back then. Then I kept going and never thought about it again.”
Despite his regular kisses to heaven, Juan Carlos says he’s not particularly religious. “I don’t believe in God so much, you know” he admits. “When I do the kiss I don’t know if my mother is watching or not, I do the kiss also for my father. He likes me to do it.”
Just as he opens up and talks about his personal life, Juan Carlos has second thoughts and clams up again. You can see how uncomfortable he is talking about his family and religion. Some squirming is detectable in his body language. He’s also finding it hard to concentrate on the questions being put to him. He’s far more interested in our photographer’s digital camera “I want to buy a camera for my girlfriend” he tells James, pulling a Spanish version of ‘what digital camera’ from his racket bag. “What do you think?” (His girlfriend is called Patricia. She lives in Valencia where she is a college student.) After a brief discussion about Patricia’s photographic requirements, James has no hesitation in recommending a £1000 Canon EOS 300D. Juan Carlos doesn’t bat an eyelid. He may live modestly but when you earn £2 million a year (in prize money alone), a cool grand for your girlfriend is hardly going to get your bank manage sweating.
The next interruption is canine one. Juan Carlos has two dogs- a tiny little Ihasa apso called Roca and a quite enormous St Bernard called Laska. (Side by side their dissimilarity is hilarious.) Both of these man’s best friends are jealous of all the attention their master is getting. While Roca runs around yapping at all the players’ clay covered ankles, Laska is lolloping about, sniffing every ball in site. To the embarrassment of all present, most of the balls he’s sniffing are not of the tennis variety. Fortunately Laska’s genital inquisitiveness earns him a slap from Toni.
Juan Carlos laughs and excuses him from the interview. It’s time for his daily work out in the gym. He wanders off to his peach coloured bungalow to change. Laska follows him, still sniffing.