As Spain hosts the United States in a Davis Cup semifinal, among the stars in attendance is one of the nation’s most accomplished but also most overlooked tennis players of the last decade, who recently announced that he will retire after his home tournament in Valencia.  Dubbed “King Juan Carlos” for his aristocratic appearance and dignified character, Juan Carlos Ferrero showcased an understated, crisp baseline style based on smooth technique and smart instincts—as well as the competitive stamina that earned him his other nickname, the “Mosquito.”  We reflect upon the most memorable moments from the career of this Spanish champion.

2000 Davis Cup:  The flagship of the original Spanish Armada, Ferrero presaged his breakthrough and the dominance of Spanish tennis over the next decade by winning all five of his singles rubbers this year.  At barely 20, he routed Russians Kafelnikov and Safin in the Cup semifinals before defeating Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt in the final at Barcelona.  The victory over Hewitt represented the Cup-clinching match for Spain, which never had won the national team competition before, and it catapulted Ferrero into international recognition.

2001 Rome:  For his first of three Masters 1000 titles, all on the red clay of Europe, Ferrero collected a tournament filled with history and prestige.  Having cruised to the final without dropping a set and losing more than six games in only one match, he faced an imposing challenge in world #1 Gustavo Kuerten.  Although the veteran led two sets to one, Ferrero remained confident in snatching a tight fourth set and then cruised to victory in an emphatic decider.  This title presaged a finals appearance at the Masters 1000 tournament in Hamburg a week later and his first major semifinal at Roland Garros, where Kuerten earned his revenge.  By the end of that clay season, though, Ferrero had reached the top four in the world and positioned himself to reach the year-end championships for the first time. 

2002 year-end championships:  Falling to Federer in an omen of the future during round-robin play, Ferrero nevertheless delivered a trio of impressive victories over top-eight opponents.  Arguably the finest of those efforts came against world #2 Agassi, which ended in a third-set tiebreak that lasted 14 points.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against compatriot Carlos Moya in a semifinal, Ferrero then erased a two-set deficit against Hewitt, his conqueror at the tournament a year before.  One set from this prestigious title, he succumbed to the Australian in a dramatic climax to the last match of the season.  But the momentum gained from this strong finish to 2002 likely contributed to the best year of his career in 2003.

2003 Roland Garros:  Denied a year before in the final at his most prolific major, Ferrero finally broke through that barrier to claim the most prestigious title of his career.  Losing only three sets in the tournament, he demolished fellow Spaniard Albert Costa in the semifinals and surprise finalist Martin Verkerk in the final, the latter for the loss of only six games.  The straight-sets victory over Costa avenged a demoralizing defeat to his compatriot in the 2002 final, when he won only one game in the first two sets as nerves clearly unraveled him.  This year, no such nerves afflicted Ferrero when the dangerous Gonzalez extended him to a fifth set in the quarterfinals, his only true test of the fortnight.

2003 US Open:  Following his title at Roland Garros, Ferrero had seized few headlines during a tepid summer, so a second major final in this season startled many observers.  In contrast to his surge through Paris, his route through New York wound through four four-setters and a five-setter against the aging Todd Martin.  Confronted by world #2 and sentimental favorite Andre Agassi in the semifinals, Ferrero did not flinch from this challenge as he quickly accumulated a two-set lead and weathered a late surge from the American to close out the match in four sets.  Although he could not solve the formidable serve of Andy Roddick in the final, he finished the tournament with the #1 ranking and proof that, despite his preference for clay, he could succeed on all surfaces.

2004 Australian Open:  Aided by a comfortable draw, Ferrero recorded the best performance of his career at the season’s first major.  He did not encounter a seeded opponent en route to the semifinals, where Federer dispatched him comfortably in a statement of the Swiss star’s heightening brilliance.  Still, Ferrero ensured with this unexpected effort that he would remain in the top three for most of the first half, after which his ranking would dwindle steadily until he finished the year outside the top 30.  Marked by this Australian Open was the last significant accomplishment of his peak years, before recurrent injuries and the evolution of tennis into an increasingly physical sport spurred his decline.

2006 Cincinnati:  Unable to reach a final of note in 2005, the Spaniard fell in the first week of all three majors during the first half of 2006.  But he arrested that slide momentarily with a finals appearance on the fast hard courts of North America, not allocation where one might have expected him to shine.  Ferrero defeated three top-eight opponents there, all in straight sets, before Roddick halted him in a rematch of their US Open final.  Unseeded at this prestigious Masters 1000 tournament, he returned to the top 20 in a glimpse of a potential career resurrection that unfortunately proved illusory.

2008 Rome:  Reduced to a shadow of his former self, the flagship of the Spanish Armada conquered the man who had supplanted him as his nation’s leading player.  During a spectacular clay season that culminated by winning Roland Garros without losing a set, Nadal succumbed to Ferrero in the opening round of the tournament that his compatriot had won seven long years before.  To be sure, a foot injury hampered Rafa, and Ferrero would lose to eventual finalist Wawrinka a round later.  In a period of frustration and accumulating injuries, however, this sunny afternoon in Italy represented perhaps the brightest single accomplishment of his twilight phase.

2009 Wimbledon:  Fading ever further away from relevance, Ferrero launched one final charge on the surface least suited to his game.  In a scintillating five-setter, he overcame world #10 Gonzalez to reach the second week at the grass-court major—and then stunned the seventh-ranked Gilles Simon for a berth in the quarterfinals.  Felled by Andy Murray at that stage, Ferrero nevertheless earned the opportunity to grace Centre Court at the All England Club in a marquee match for the last time, a setting that mirrored the poise and elegance that he brought to the game.

***

Soon to come are longer retrospectives on the careers of Clijsters and Roddick, who played their last tournaments at the US Open.