Commentary

Ferrer, Wawrinka seek spotlight

Originally Published: May 24, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

PARIS -- The other Spaniard and the other Swiss. Those are the roles that David Ferrer and Stanislas Wawrinka have played for most of their careers, lurking in the long shadows cast by their more illustrious countrymen, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It is also the most predictable question they face, win or lose. No matter what each achieves by the end of his career, it will always be put within the context of Nadal's or Federer's legendary accomplishments.

Both have handled the situation with grace, particularly Ferrer. Despite being 4 years older, Ferrer, 29, has been Nadal's regular video-game partner and describes him as his best friend on tour. "Rafa deserves all the attention he gets," Ferrer said this spring. "He is the best player in the history of Spain and one of the best in history."

Wawrinka and Federer won the Olympic doubles gold medal in Beijing, a major bonding moment, and Federer, 29, gave his younger compatriot plenty of advice when he was coming up. There was a little friction when Federer pulled out from Switzerland's Davis Cup tie with Kazakhstan at the last minute in September, but the two have repaired relations, particularly after Federer's promise to play against Portugal in July.

"Roger is one of my closest friends on the tour," Wawrinka, 26, has said. "He's the best tennis player ever, and it's great to be close to him, to spend time with him."

Can either steal the spotlight away at this year's French Open? Federer's results have been lukewarm this year, and Nadal looks a little less invincible after going five sets against John Isner in the first round. Meanwhile, Ferrer and Wawrinka, who play their second-round matches on Wednesday, are at their best on clay courts. Yet both also face doubts about whether they have the game -- and the steel -- to go deep at a major and beat their compatriots when it really counts.

Ferrer has the harder task but is in a better position. Although Nadal and Novak Djokovic have taken the spotlight, Ferrer has quietly put together the third-best campaign on European clay courts this year. Of his four losses, only one was not to Nadal or Djokovic, and that came last week in the quarterfinals of Nice, an event he entered at the last minute to make up for having to pull out of the Rome Masters with illness. He reached the finals of the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona, falling to Nadal both times, and took Djokovic to three sets before losing in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Masters.

Fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, the other contender for this season's No. 3 clay courter, is already out, defeated by Lukasz Kubot in the first round. Fernando Verdasco shows little sign of breaking out of his slump. That solidifies Ferrer as Nadal's understudy, the one to whom the Spanish mantle would fall if Nadal exited.

[+] EnlargeFerrer
Matthias Hauer/US PresswireDavid Ferrer is one of the best clay-court players around, but he's still looking for his first sojourn to a Slam final.

Having learned his work ethic from Lleyton Hewitt, Ferrer is a dogged competitor who has no huge weapons but one of the tour's best return games. A recent incident in Miami, where an irritated Ferrer lobbed a ball toward the sound of a crying baby in the stands, was considered quite out of character for a player regarded as one of the circuit's nice guys. His record against Nadal is officially a semirespectable 4-11, but injury or youth has been the story of those wins. Can he face down a fully fit Nadal? Ferrer maintains that he can, but his coach since childhood, Javier Piles, senses doubts. "I think David is one of those players who can beat Rafa on clay," the coach said earlier this month. "The problem is that at the moment of truth, he doesn't believe it."

To beat Nadal here, Ferrer would have to do it in the final. Getting there also would require a lot of belief. His previous best at a major was reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open earlier this year, clinched with a win over an injured Nadal in the quarterfinals.

Despite a tricky matchup against Gael Monfils in the fourth round, it would be no surprise to see Ferrer in the quarterfinals against Federer. But can he go any further? In stark contrast to Nadal, Ferrer is 11-0 against Federer. His best hope may be for Wawrinka to produce an upset if the two Swiss players meet in the fourth round.

Wawrinka's record against Federer is an almost-as-futile 1-11, and he has lost both their meetings at majors fairly tamely, including in Australia this year. But no one can accuse him of not trying. In an effort to get back into the top 10, Wawrinka split with his childhood coach, Dimitri Zavalioff, this past summer, hiring Federer's former coach Peter Lundgren instead. A little more sensationally, he also separated from his wife, Ilham Vuilloud, with whom he'd had a baby daughter. She told Swiss media that Wawrinka had said, "Since I got my new coach, I've changed -- I have other needs, other desires. Tennis has once again become my priority. I've got another five years, I'll give it everything."

Wawrinka has not shared details about the separation, but the Swiss media report that he sees his 1-year-old daughter, Alexia, regularly.

After a strong start to the year, Wawrinka's results have fallen off, and he has struggled on his favored clay surface. But he has a relatively easy draw -- like Ferrer, his first test likely will come against a Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in the third round.

Like fellow clay lovers Nadal and Almagro, Ferrer and Wawrinka will have to deal with the quicker conditions in Paris this year, attributed largely to the new, quicker balls. "I don't like the ball," Almagro said, a somewhat predictable declaration after a defeat. Ferrer has described them as "engineered for fast court players with very good serve." Wawrinka called them "very bizarre," saying they are lively when new but become flat quickly.

Then again, they're both used to fighting from the sideline.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.