Who are the only four players to have reached at least the semi-finals in their first four campaigns at Roland-Garros? Rafael Nadal, Mats Wilander, Jean Borotra and… Juan Carlos Ferrero. This gives us an idea of just how big a place Ferrero appeared destined to carve out in Roland-Garros history. Ultimately, however, he ended up as the only member of this quartet to have to settle for a single title in Paris, a paltry return considering what looked on the cards following a sensational start to his career.
Juan Carlos Ferrero, the little prince
When discussing Juan Carlos Ferrero, the stats do not tell the full story. Above all, they do not capture the stir he caused when he first stormed on to the circuit like a tornado around the turn of the millennium, sweeping away opponents and practically blowing the clay off the court. The Spaniard claimed his maiden ATP title in just his fifth tour-level event, in Majorca in 1999, and then proceeded to put Mark Philippoussis and Alex Corretja to the sword on his debut in the main draw at Roland-Garros the following year, before going two sets to one and a break up against the mighty Gustavo Kuerten.
The eventual three-time French Open winner somehow found a way to turn it around and squeeze through in five sets (7-5, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3), but one of the most enthralling encounters of the decade in Paris set the stage for this to become the headline clay-court match-up of the early noughties. In the Brazilian's gushing words, "Ferrero is the toughest opponent I faced on clay. We had some great battles, particularly that first semi-final at Roland-Garros. After that, we sensed a special sense of expectation around all of our matches. Everyone felt that a great rivalry had been born."
With his misleadingly slight frame (he was bang on 6 ft tall and weighed just 73 kg), there was something of the ungainly adolescent about the young Ferrero on the court, yet this appearance belied his prowess. His superb stamina, ability to take the ball early and geometric wizardry were allied to a fierce forehand that kept landing blows on opponents, relentlessly, until they could take no more punishment. The man nicknamed "Juanqui" soon earned himself another moniker, becoming known as "the Mosquito" – testament to the fact that once he had his target in his sights, he sunk his teeth in and did not let up.
Kuerten and he would meet again in the semis at the Porte d'Auteuil the year after, but not before Ferrero had hit new heights by beating the Brazilian in a five-set final at the Rome Masters a few weeks earlier. But on this occasion, "Guga" served up a masterpiece, one of the standout performances of his career, to cruise through to the final in Paris in straight sets (6-4, 6-4, 6-3).
No matter, because while an injury-hit Kuerten was a declining force, Ferrero's rise was not yet complete. After triumphing in Monte-Carlo, he was again tipped for glory at the 2002 French Open. Ironically, however, beset by groin and abdominal problems of his own in the final, he was a shadow of the player who had overcome Gaston Gaudio, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin en route to the title decider and duly succumbed to a 6-1, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 defeat at the hands of surprise package Albert Costa, his elder compatriot.
"If I hadn't won, I think I'd have dropped dead"
It would be a case of fourth time's the charm at Roland-Garros. The heavy favourite following an almost impeccable sequence of results going into the event (21 wins to just two losses, of which one was a retirement), Ferrero at long last hoisted the hallowed Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2003 after a campaign in which only Chile's Fernando González – who, as it happens, had beaten him in the junior final in 1998 – was able to trouble him, taking him all the way to a breathless fifth set in the quarter-finals (6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4). "If I hadn't won, I think I'd have dropped dead," the relieved Spaniard sighed after finally getting over the line against "El Bombardero", who had saved five match points with winners.
This was Ferrero's only scare in a tournament that saw him authoritatively dismiss Rome champion Félix Mantilla (6-2, 6-1, 6-1 in just an hour and 30 minutes) and exact revenge against Albert Costa in the semis (6-3, 7-6, 6-4) before ending Martin Verkerk's fairy-tale run in ruthless fashion (6-1, 6-3, 6-2, the most one-sided final in Paris since 1978).
At the tender age of 23, then, he had already amassed 23 wins in 26 matches on the Parisian red dust. What's more, he had showcased supreme versatility by making the finals of the Masters Cup in 2002 (held on an indoor hard court) and the 2003 US Open, in the wake of which he rose to world number one. At this point, therefore, the question on everybody's lips was not whether or not he would prevail at Roland-Garros again, but how many times he would do so.
"Dont' be like me: don't stop at one"
"Don't be like me; don't stop at one [Grand Slam title]," quipped Yannick Noah when presenting Ferrero with the trophy in Paris. Little was the Frenchman to know how prescient this remark would turn out to be; neither Noah nor anyone else could imagine that the Spaniard would not only never win another Roland-Garros, but he would never even advance to the second week again! What ensued was a fall from grace as dramatic as it was shocking – as unexpected, arguably, as any in the sport's history. The mitigating factors: frequent physical issues (chicken pox, rib and wrist injuries) and a struggle to find new goals and rediscover his motivation: "My career targets were to win Roland-Garros and the Davis Cup, and to be world number one. I'd done all that by the age of 23." This admission echoes – although not in so many words – the distinction drawn by Carlos Moya, another older fellow countryman whose career followed a similar trajectory, between "champions", whose burning ambition is to capture a major title, and so-called "super-champions", whose appetite for success is never sated.
Ferrero's style of play itself betrayed his transformation, as he increasingly went from being a baseline slugger to a 'pusher' whose strokes lacked the eye-popping punch of yore. In the process, he suddenly fade away, despite an Indian summer during the twilight of his career, when he won five tournaments either side of his 30th birthday, putting an end to an incredible six-year title drought stretching from the 2003 Madrid Masters to the ATP 250 event in Casablanca in 2009. This mini-revival also included playing a key role in another Spanish Davis Cup conquest, in 2009, having previously made a decisive contribution to another two of the country's five triumphs (in 2000 and 2004).
Yet "the Mosquito" would never again bite at Roland-Garros, where his last real hurrah would be a ding-dong battle with long-time friend and foe Safin back in 2005. Even then, though, this came as early as the third round. Nevertheless, the memories live on of his explosion into the big time and his era-defining bouts with the likes of Kuerten, Agassi and Gaudio, together with whom he formed part of a distinguished club that dominated Roland-Garros before the advent of another colossal figure with an animal-inspired nickname, albeit one cut from an entirely different cloth stylistically: the "Bull of Manacor", Rafael Nadal.
Juan Carlos Ferrero's record at Roland-Garros...
- 34 victories, 11 defeats.
- 1 title (2003), 1 final (2002) and 2 semi-finals (2000, 2001). Juan Carlos Ferrero was also finalist at the US Open (2003) and semi-finalist at the Australian Open (2004).
- 12 participations at Roland-Garros (the first in 2000 at the age of 20).
- Notables wins over Mark Philippoussis (round of 16 in 2000), Alex Corretja (quarter-final in 2000), Lleyton Hewitt (quarter-final in 2001), Gaston Gaudio (round of 16 in 2002), Andre Agassi (quarter-final in 2002), Marat Safin (semi-final in 2002), Fernando Gonzalez (quarter-final in 2003), Albert Costa (semi-final in 2003), Martin Verkerk (2003 final).
- His staff when he won Roland-Garros: Antonio Martinez Cascales (tennis coach), Miguel Maeso (physical trainer) and Victor Munoz (physiotherapist).