Rafa largely to blame for Ferrero's downfall

There was a poignancy to Rafael Nadal's semi-surprise visit to Valencia, Spain, early this week. He was the most celebrated of the ATP pros who turned out to say goodbye to Grand Slam champion and former ATP No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Ferrero, 32 years old and now down to No. 161, chose to make the hometown Valencia Open his final singles tournament. He lost in the first round to Nicolas Almagro, a countryman who later thanked Ferrero for "pushing me to become a professional."

Almagro wasn't the only Spanish player upon whom Ferrero had an enormous influence. Following in the footsteps of Alex Corretja and Carlos Moya (the French Open champ of 1998), Ferrero was a human tipping point, ushering in the era of Spanish domination on the tour and in Davis Cup competition. He paid dearly for that role, too -- which is where Nadal enters the conversation.

When Ferrero -- lean, energetic and so swift that he was affectionately dubbed "el mosquito" -- won Monte Carlo and Roland Garros in 2003, he was widely viewed as a player who could potentially dominate the game. He was better than, and different from, Moya, less powerful, perhaps, but more nimble and blessed with a lot more natural drive and gusto.

Although Ferrero was best on clay, his aggressive ground game translated well to hard courts. He was runner-up at the 2003 U.S. Open (losing to Andy Roddick) thanks partly to a lethal whiplash forehand more evocative of Roger Federer's than Nadal's.

Ferrero became No. 1 in August 2003, but he lasted just eight weeks -- thanks to Roddick's triumph over him at the U.S. Open. Ferrero came down with chicken pox early in 2004. Then, after a monthlong layoff, he injured his ribs and right racket wrist in a fall during practice. Inadequately prepared for the defense of his French Open title, Ferrero lost in straight sets in the second round to No. 77 Igor Andreev.

At the same time, Rafael Nadal was on the cusp of a breakout delayed by injury problems of his own.

When Nadal won the 2005 French Open 12 months later, Ferrero was still just 25 years old. But he'd fallen to No. 33 partly because of that earlier illness and injury. The scuttlebutt, though, was that Ferrero, a handsome, young bachelor with a penchant for exotic cars, also was overindulging in the good life and the perks of his position.

That might not have turned out so badly, were it not for the all-business personality and inexorable rise of Nadal. As a raw youth of 20, Ferrero had clinched the Davis Cup for Spain in December 2000 with a brilliant win over Lleyton Hewitt. That was the first of what would be five Davis Cup wins for Spain over the past 11 years (with another potentially in the offing this year).

But by the time Spain played its next Davis Cup final in late 2004, Ferrero was relegated to doubles and sat on the bench, watching as the newcomer Nadal -- already playing No. 1 for Spain and ranked No. 4 in the world -- upset Roddick to put Spain up 2-0 in the singles. What had once looked like Ferrero's team for the foreseeable future suddenly belonged, as it still does, to Nadal.

You can argue that Ferrero's decline was so swift and his bad luck (injuries would plague him through much of his career) so pervasive, that even if Nadal did not exist, Ferrero would have been unable to back up his early achievements.

Given that his career spanned nearly a decade and a half (he made has rankings debut in 1998), Ferrero's 16 titles seem a modest haul (although his 34 appearances in a final make that stat look a little better). And after those charmed 176 consecutive weeks in the top 10 early in his career, Ferrero never did get back to that elite level.

But it's still hard to gauge just how much of a dampening effect the rise of Nadal had on Ferrero's career, motivation, dedication and enthusiasm. And politics -- personal and otherwise -- always begins to play a role in a talent-rich nation (ask Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras about that).

Addressing Ferrero and the crowd in Valencia during the retirement ceremony, Nadal said, "You have done so much for the sport and marked the path for a generation of Spanish players."

I'm sure Ferrero is too nice a guy to have thought, "And then I got trampled underfoot as you bowled me over, rushing down it."

But I wouldn't be surprised if something like that has crossed his mind.