French Open: Andy Murray looks to tame 'Little Beast' Ferrer
Andy Murray was 18 when he first played David Ferrer, his opponent here today in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, at the Barcelona Open.
Murray took the first set – it remains the only set he has won against the Spaniard on clay – and remembers how his opponent did not appreciate the Scot's shout of "Vamos!" ("Come on!") during the match.
"I've played many guys who don't speak English and say 'Come on!' to me," Murray said. "It was the first time I'd played against him, I was 18 at the time, and he was probably a bit surprised that someone like me at that age was saying that. He wasn't that happy. He just asked me why I'd said it. I didn't answer. I was just playing the match."
While Murray would agree that he is not the world's greatest linguist, the one other language in which he is comfortable is Spanish. As a teenager Murray trained at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona, where he quickly learnt Spanish ways.
"I understand the philosophy of their tennis and how they go about it and the certain patterns of play they use that people might not necessarily see," Murray said. "I grew up being taught a lot of the same stuff that they will have done, which probably helps a bit.
"I know a lot of the drills and the basket drills that they do and the repetition when they're told to hit certain shots. In many ways it takes a lot of the thinking out of the game because they're very drilled into certain patterns of play. They probably have five or six patterns that they use and they work very well."
He added: "Everybody knows how everybody plays, so there are no major surprises when I play against him or Rafa [Nadal]. I'm just saying that's how I was brought up and taught to play the game and that's how they would have been as well. Obviously you change tactics for certain matches. You would do something different against me than against Rafa and so on, but the fundamentals are still the same. You don't want to change the basics of your game."
Knowing how his opponents might go about their matches is one of the only consolations Murray can take as he contemplates the challenge facing him here. The three other players left in his half of the draw – all Spaniards – have not lost a set between them in their first four matches.
Ferrer has dropped just 25 games, a record bettered by Nadal, who has lost only 19. Nicolas Almagro, Nadal's opponent today, has been careless by comparison, conceding a total of 43 games in his four straight-sets victories. While Murray has never even played in a clay-court final, Nadal has won 35 of his 49 titles on clay, Ferrer eight of 14 and Almagro 12 of 12.
Murray, who practises regularly with Ferrer, insists that the world No 6 is a dangerous opponent on all surfaces, but it is on clay in particular that the 30-year-old lives up to his nickname of "Little Beast". Devastatingly quick and at ease with his movement on the surface, Ferrer consistently makes opponents hit the extra ball and run the extra yard. At only 5ft 9in tall he may lack the power of most of his greatest rivals, but what he lacks in brute force he more than makes up for with his stamina and resilience.
"I don't necessarily think he gets the credit he deserves," Murray said. "People think he's just a workhorse almost. He does work incredibly hard, but he has many ways of hurting guys on the court. He's been in the top five or six players in the world for the last three or four years. He's very consistent, he has a great game, he's improved his serve a lot over the last few years and he's physically very, very strong as well. Over five-set matches he's very hard to break down."
Ferrer was not always such a hard worker. When he was a teenager, his coach, Javier Piles, who still works with him, used to lock him up in a broom cupboard at their tennis club for hours on end when his work-rate slackened. Disillusioned, Ferrer gave up tennis at 17, but going to work on a building site convinced him that his coach might be right after all. After his first week an exhausted Ferrer had earned just €30 (£24) from loading bricks into a wheelbarrow. At the end of it he told Piles that he would report for training at 9am sharp the next day.
While Murray could not envisage his own coach, Ivan Lendl, locking him up in a cupboard as punishment – "I don't think I'd be working with him much longer if he did," the Scot smiled – he acknowledged that Piles' approach "obviously worked for David when he was younger".
Murray added: "They've got a great relationship. He's also a very hard worker. He's in very good shape too. He works out a lot and they have always had great respect for each other."
Nowadays Ferrer is one of the most dedicated of trainers. He can run 10km in 36 minutes – only 10 minutes slower than Mo Farah's best on the track – and goes on 60-mile rides on a mountain bike. During the off season he practises with the heavy rackets used by Basque pelota players to build strength in his arms and upper body.
For all his excellence on clay, however, Ferrer does not have a particularly good record here. In his nine previous visits he reached the quarter-finals only twice, losing to Nadal in 2005 and to Gaël Monfils in 2008. His best Grand Slam results have been on hard courts: he has reached two semi-finals, losing to Novak Djokovic in New York in 2007 and to Murray in Australia last year.
Before Ferrer beat an ailing Murray in their most recent meeting at last year's ATP World Tour Finals, Murray had beaten the Spaniard four times in a row. However, Ferrer has won all three of their meetings on clay, Murray's best chance having come in that first meeting in Barcelona six years ago. "I actually think I served for the match," Murray recalled. "Maybe physically I wasn't quite ready to win against a guy like him on the clay."
When Murray was asked whether the fact that he had never beaten Ferrer on clay would be a factor today, the Scot said: "We'll see on the day." Whatever the outcome, however, Murray knows it will not be easy. "I've always found it tough against him on clay in matches and in practice," he said. "I train with him quite a lot and I get on very well with him. We know each other's games very well."
Ferrer agreed. "I know that to beat Andy I need to play my best tennis," he said. "I think he could've been world No 1 because he analyses matches really well. He reads the opponent's game very well. His first serve is outstanding. He's very gifted and talented."