- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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PARIS -- The big three of men's tennis are talented and, in their way, charismatic.
No. 1-ranked Roger Federer carries himself like a champion -- can't you just picture him, regal in that retro cream blazer at Wimbledon? No. 2 Rafael Nadal is a swashbuckling character who could probably play Johnny Depp's part in the Spanish version of "Pirates of the Caribbean." Novak Djokovic, No. 3, has performed his hysterical impressions on "The Tonight Show."
Even No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko has enjoyed (maybe not the best word) a high profile lately, in the wake of a gambling scandal. Which brings us to today's exercise: Who, tennis fans of the world, is ranked No. 5 among ATP players?
Introducing Mr. David Ferrer, of Javea, Spain. True aficionados know his name and grinding game, but Ferrer might be the most anonymous top-five player in years.
Ferrer turned 26 last month and is relatively slight, at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. But he has ridiculous hand-eye coordination, which enabled him to place first in all four service return categories last year on the ATP. He takes the ball seriously early. No less an authority than Federer called him the best returner in the business -- "along with Rafael Nadal" -- at last year's U.S. Open.
"Roger said this?" said Ferrer, taken aback.
"Thanks, Roger," he said.
Ferrer's 15 minutes of fame came last fall at the U.S. Open, where he took out Nalbandian and Nadal in back-to-back rounds and advanced to the semifinals of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career. Ferrer lost to Djokovic in straight sets, but hard courts are not his best surface. Clay, naturally, is.
On Saturday, Ferrer outlasted Lleyton Hewitt 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a 3-hour, 35-minute match that felt more like a wrestling match. The Spaniard advanced to the round of 16 here for the second time, and he called it his best match of 2008.
Both Hewitt and Ferrer are fierce, relentless baseliners who will swing away until the sun goes down. The entire match seemed like an endless backhand-to-backhand rally, punctuated by an occasional forehand. This isn't surprising, considering that Ferrer based his style largely on Hewitt.
"Is similar, no?" he asked after the match, with a degree of pride.
Ferrer is so taken with Hewitt that he asked his idol for a T-shirt at the Australian Open. Ferrer is fairly anonymous even among the Spanish players, who count seven members in the top 25. Ferrer is ranked second-highest after Nadal, but former French Open champions Carlos Moya (1998) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003) have better Q ratings. Even Tommy Robredo, Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco might have as much visibility outside of Europe.
As the fifth set progressed, Ferrer got closer and closer to breaking Hewitt's serve. Finally, at 4-all, he applied the pressure and Hewitt cracked, sending a weak backhand into the net. Ferrer was down 15-30 serving for the match, but he hit a service winner, then hit the middle line with an ace, and then watched as Hewitt hit a final backhand wide.
"He doesn't give you a lot of free points," Hewitt said. "He changes direction well. He moves extremely well out to his forehand side, as well as anyone on this surface."
Ferrer, in the context of his public statements, is quite modest. The Spanish journalists say that while he is probably more arrogant away from the microphone, there is an element of humility about him. When he was outside the top 100, he said he'd never get there. Same with the top 50. When he was No. 15, he said he couldn't imagine himself as a top-10 player.
Part of it, no doubt, is that until very recently, he has been low in the Spanish hierarchy. He didn't play in the Davis Cup until 2006 and still seems to consider himself less than worthy.
On Saturday he was asked how it was possible to reach the top five with that kind of self-deprecating view.
After the question was repeated in Spanish, Ferrer rolled his eyes and exhaled in an exaggerated, comic expression.
"I don't know," he shrugged. "Nadal and Federer are No. 1 and No. 2. [They are] humble."
Translation: If the best two players on the planet are humble, why would Ferrer bring the attitude?
Hewitt, historically, has been one of the mentally toughest players on tour. But Ferrer was tougher. Growing up, his mind-set was a weakness, not a strength.
His work ethic was so poor that when he was 17 in 1999, his coach, Javier Piles, literally put him under lock and key.
"When he didn't want to work, I would lock him up in a dark room of [6 feet by 6 feet ]," Piles has said. "It was the room where we would store the tennis balls."
The exercise prompted Ferrer to quit tennis. After working in construction for one week, he came back.
"I think in a week, I learned to value many things," Ferrer said. "That is something difficult to achieve when you are 17 and have doubts about your future."
Today, it is worth mentioning that Piles is still Ferrer's coach. More telling, perhaps, is that his nickname, Ferro, means "iron" or "blacksmith" in Catalan. He has the compact build of a cyclist; he is clearly built to go the distance.
Ferrer faces Radek Stepanek on Monday, and the winner will advance to the quarterfinals. From there, only the Ivan Ljubicic-Gael Monfils winner would stand between Ferrer and the second Grand Slam semifinal of his career.
It might take a win there, against a guy named Federer, to put David Ferrer on the global tennis map.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
19hEthan Sherwood Strauss