Officially, he is the Spanish No. 1, but David Ferrer might be having trouble looking his friend Rafael Nadal in the eye when that comes up. Had Ferrer not pulled out of this week's event in Monte Carlo with injury, he would have been the tournament's third seed -- ahead of Nadal, an eight-time champion in Monte Carlo who defeated Ferrer 6-0, 6-2 in their most recent clay-court meeting earlier this year. Instead, it's Andy Murray who finds himself in the unfamiliar position of being seeded ahead of Nadal at a clay event. But if Ferrer returns to play at next week's event in Barcelona as scheduled, Ferrer will again be the top seed while Nadal is No. 2, even though Nadal has beaten Ferrer in the final four of the past five years. The discrepancy will be all the more glaring at a Spanish tournament, where national players receive most of the attention. At their next event, the Mutua Madrid Open, Ferrer will also be ahead.
Few will be buying it. It's well-known that Nadal is down to No. 5 in the rankings after spending nine months out with a knee injury, with Ferrer moving up to No. 4 in February as a result -- coincidentally, just as Nadal was making his return. The less-illustrious Spaniard has been very respectable in his results, reaching three Grand Slam semifinals, winning a Masters and reaching the final of another and winning five smaller events during the past year. But he is not Nadal, and the modest, soft-spoken Ferrer is bound to feel a little uncomfortable when the rankings situation causes remark, as it likely will over the next few weeks. Nadal probably would be the first to defend Ferrer's position. Both he and his coach, Toni Nadal (Rafa's uncle), have extolled Ferrer's qualities, saying that in any previous generation, he might have been Spain's leading player. Given Spain's record of players over the past couple of decades, it's quite a compliment. And as impressive as the rest of the locker room finds the big four of Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Murray and Roger Federer, it might be Ferrer who is the most respected among the players, for he has gotten where he is without a big physique or a natural shot-maker's talent. Instead, there is honed skill, consistency, patience and work -- and if he can do it, they believe, it is something they can aspire to as well. Despite his low public profile, Ferrer looms large for his fellow competitors. "David is a fighter," Djokovic said at the U.S. Open last year. "He's one of the biggest competitors we have in the game. People, they overlook him. But he has been one of the most consistent players on the tour. He plays great on every surface. You need to earn your points against him." Even the big four worry when they face Ferrer, despite his notable few wins against them in big matches. "The minute you're not 100 percent, he'll beat you," Federer succinctly observed at this year's Australian Open. But as Federer's remark suggests, the problem is that while they worry, they worry about themselves rather than about Ferrer. If they can play up to their regular form, they know they can be confident of victory. Unlike big hitters like Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, there is no concern about the match not being in their hands. "I am trying to do my best every match. But I know they are better than me. What can I do?" said Ferrer, 31, in resigned fashion after losing to Djokovic in a one-sided straight-setter at the Australian Open. The final of the Sony Open in Miami was a better answer. Playing Murray, Ferrer resisted his instincts and looked to take charge of points rather than grind his opponent down. Though it is Murray who has been lauded for his newfound aggression and more powerful forehands, the Spaniard was noticeably the more aggressive player as the match neared its final, close stages. Apart from Murray's occasional tired forays into net, it was Ferrer who hit inside-out forehands, jumped on the return, hit aces and came into net himself to put the ball away. One notable exception was his match point at 6-5 in the third, when a high return allowed Murray to take charge with his forehand, and Ferrer, already in a losing position in the rally, lost the point when he stopped to challenge a call. But apart from that and the cramps that set in during the third-set tiebreaker, the match represented a real possibility of continued progress for Ferrer. His hometown of Javea must have been impressed. Shortly afterward, it was announced that a street in the town was being renamed for him. When playing well, particularly against less powerful opponents, Ferrer often looks to dictate baseline rallies, but he tends to maneuver rather than grab control. Admittedly, Murray is the easiest of the big four to be more aggressive against, and Ferrer's 5-7 record against him is his best against any of them. But it is part of a larger attempt to improve his game that he talked about at the Masters Cup last fall as he reflected on his recent indoor success. "I am playing more aggressive with my shots," Ferrer said. "I'm going closer to the net to win the points; I think I am changing my backhand and playing with my backhand from the baseline more." The withdrawal from Monte Carlo, reportedly from a left leg problem he suffered in the Miami final, is a setback. But with his No. 4 ranking and a slightly weakened field shaping up for the clay season, Ferrer may get some real opportunities to make it to the final stages of the big tournaments and could even have a chance to move farther up the rankings. But those occasions are also where he is likely to find the likes of Nadal and Djokovic waiting for him. How he does against them could be the real test of his progress, particularly after the two lopsided losses so far this year. If Ferrer can recover and continue to build on what he showed in Miami, though, there might be less focus on where he stands relative to Nadal, and more on the direction in which his results are headed.