Of all the dangerous floaters left in the men's draw none bears fins as sharp or as noticeable as those of Juan Carlos Ferrero. They will have to be, mind you, for tomorrow he plays Roger Federer in the fourth round. And nature's greatest predators don't get any more great or any more whiter than white than that. Ferrero, however, rather than tiptoe warily into the nerve-infested environs of Centre Court, will fairly skip in there, splashing around in the joy of it all. Because the depths to which this Spanish 25-year-old has sunk, only too recently, has things that can bite 10 times more fiercely: namely desperation, frustration, and, most painful of all, self-doubt.
Actually, in the true sense of the word, thanks to a system here that now all but hands seedings out free with a glass of lemon barley, Ferrero is not a floater at all. But when you've been No 1 in the world not even two years ago, then being down at 23 sure feels like it. Especially when in the time it takes to contract chickenpox, shake it off and then suffer back, rib, knee and wrist injuries after falling over, some young upstart has come and nicked your status as "finest Spanish player".
Witnessing the rise of Rafael Nadal in the last year or so has been one of many bad times to have blighted Ferrero since September 2003, when the then French Open champion acceded to the pinnacle of the men's game. As he sat then, atop the world, he wasn't to know what about to befall him in 2004 when his world, not to mention his ranking, was to turn upside down.
First came shooting pains up his legs, followed swiftly by the debilitating viral infection and then the injuries that spiralled him down all the way to No 90 in the world. "The difficult moments were when I knew that I had the chickenpox and that it would take two or three months to recover," he said. "I had to start again physically because the virus left me at zero per cent. When I started to come back I broke a few things when I fell on court and that was another two months out. Those five months were pretty difficult for me. I have a lot of confidence in me that I will be the same Juan Carlos as I was before."
He certainly looked like the old Juan Carlos to Florian Mayer on No 1 Court yesterday, although not when the match began. Indeed, the unfortunate German must have believed he was on the brink of a big scalp when racing through the first set in 23 minutes, but he was then left tearing his own hair out when his opponent reeled off the next three in 86 minutes flat. On his day - and this was his day - Ferrero is control and elegance personified; this long-limbed, elegant individual covers the court in the blink of an eye, reaching balls that should really be unreachable with humbling ease.
Well, Mayer felt humble anyway as he was dragged into a fight from the baseline that was only ever going to have one victor. After having the tactics dictated to him in the first set, Ferrero suddenly remembered who he was - or at least who he had once been - by coming into the net just twice in the second and third (two winners) as he completely altered the shape of the match with the force of giddying groundstrokes that found the back of the court with unerring accuracy and impressive depth.
To say Mayer, who reached last year's quarter-finals here, was at a loss to find a way out of this trap was an understatement. Florian was utterly flummoxed. "Gawwwwd," he said at one (lost) point in the fourth set as the game slipped away from him.
"I was good today - eventually," said Ferrero, after giving yet more weight to the ever-burgeoning theory that the Wimbledon of the new century is nowhere as near as unfriendly as it once was to slow-court specialists. "But I came here with a lot of confidence because for the first time I had the opportunity to play a tournament on grass before Wimbledon. At Halle I won two important matches against specialist players on grass. That brought me here on a high."
And he is certain to stay there, despite the imposing figure of Federer bearing down on him. "Well, Roger is playing so good on this surface and he's winning almost everything that he's entering. But I'm playing well here and I go in with a lot of motivation. The last time I played him on a hard court [in Dubai] I had two match points against him. So, you know, if I play good I have a chance to put up a good fight."
The resulting first Wimbledon quarter-final would not only eclipse his previous best finish here - the fourth round two years ago - but also hurtle his ranking towards his hardly surprising mission. "Do I expect to return to No 1 one day?" he asked. "Yeah, why not? I've done it once, I can do it again. This year, I expect to get into the top 10 or top 12, something like that. Once there, well..."
Federer is in Ferrero's sights, both short-term and long-term.Reuse content