Andy Murray woke up this morning ranked No. 2 in the world (having dislodged Roger Federer from that niche), and he'll still be somewhat puzzled by just how he got there. He was too tired Sunday, after his epic, 2-hour, 45-minute, three-set, back-from-match-point-down win against David Ferrer, to try to figure out the details and fit it into neat sound bites. All but one of them, anyway.
And that lone, towering detail is that Ferrer, a 30-year-old Spaniard with a reputation for never, ever giving up a point without a fight, quit on one Sunday. And the result was disastrous. It was probably the most costly and painful point of his career, as well as the one that deserves most of the credit for Murray waking up with a grin on his face.
If you didn't see the match, Ferrer had match point late in the third set, but he stopped mid-rally, convinced that a penetrating Murray forehand had just missed the sideline. The electronic line-calling system confirmed that the ball had caught the outer edge of the line. Disbelieving, Ferrer played what was left of the match in a daze. Murray crushed him in the ensuing tiebreaker 7-1.
Things happen by accident, or pure bad luck, but maybe not so often as we think. We'll never know, but could it be that Ferrer had that terrible lapse of judgment because he just couldn't handle the pressure of coming so close to achieving something that had eluded the much-loved 30-year-old for all of his career -- a landmark win over a top-five player? (One of the 10 commandments of pro tennis is: Play out the point until a call is made.)
Ferrer has spent most of his career with his nose pressed against the Grand Slam and Masters 1000 glass. His main problem? He can't buy a win over a top-five player. (He's now 0-13 for his career against players ranked in that group.) Granted, it's partly because Ferrer himself is so consistent that he's always a high seed. Thus, he only gets to lock horns with the stud horses of the ATP late in tournaments, when they're dialed in and the stakes are high -- precisely the times when the Djokovics and Nadals of this world are most dangerous.
Beyond that, Ferrer has shown a disappointing tendency to falter when he's presented an opportunity to make a big statement. Granted, the big four of Novak Djokovic, Murray, Federer and Rafael Nadal have cleaned up at major tournaments and Masters. But he's had his chances here and there, and now he's on the far side of 30. Despite being in the top 10 since mid-October 2010, and up in the top five or six since early January 2011, Ferrer has won only one Masters 1000 event -- the Paris Indoors last November. His final-round opponent in that one was a qualifier, Jerzy Janowicz.
This latest loss for Ferrer has to be heartbreaking. He's quickly running out of chances to produce a legacy match. Somehow, the win over Janowicz doesn't cut it, even if it occurred in a Masters-level event. Nor will one of those dogged and bitterly fought, second- or third-round triumphs against an Andreas Seppi or a Gilles Simon. Ferrer will turn 31 Tuesday. He's much loved throughout tennis land, as well as by his peers and betters.
This match, with Murray woozy and staggering much of the time, with Ferrer wearing him down like water sculpting stone, was an opportunity for Ferrer to experience what would almost certainly be his career-defining moment -- a Masters 1000 triumph, capped by a win in the final over a Grand Slam champion, one of the big four. But he let it slip away. And now, who knows? The clock is ticking.
Murray woke up at No. 2 this morning. And Ferrer rolled out of bed up one notch and back at his career-high ranking of No. 4.
Somehow, though, I don't think he was smiling.