Juan Carlos Ferrero wasted little time showing his prowess on the Parisian terre battue of Roland Garros. In his first three appearances at the clay-court Grand Slam, the Spaniard reached the semi-finals twice, and then the championship match in 2002. Backed by a potent forehand and undeniable speed, Ferrero was clearly on the verge of a breakthrough.
“It was one of the tournaments that from when I was 14, 15, it was my dream to go there to play,’ Ferrero told ATPTour.com. “Winning that tournament at the end, it was one of the greatest things that I ever did in my tennis career.”
Ferrero wasn’t able to simply waltz across the clay to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2003, though. Although he was one of the leading contenders, Ferrero had withdrawn from his Rome semi-final against Roger Federer while trailing by a set and a break due to an arm issue.
“If his arm is not 100 per cent, there’s no way he can go out and win against the best clay-courters in the world over the course of two weeks and seven matches,” former World No. 11 MaliVai Washington wrote for ESPN at the time.
But Ferrero did not compete between Rome and Roland Garros, opting to focus on his preparations for the season’s second major.
“Of course it’s something that I did to be safe. When you have some pain before the tournament, you have to take care of it a lot,” Ferrero said. “In that moment, I had a very important tournament [coming up] and always you try to be safe and calm in that moment and try to care for the situation.”
Perhaps Ferrero’s biggest roadblock came in the quarter-finals against a well-known rival. Five years earlier, big-hitting Chilean Fernando Gonzalez defeated Ferrero to win the Roland Garros boys’ singles title. He’d also won the pair’s first two ATP Head2Head meetings, both of which came within nine months of their Parisian battle.
“It was one of the toughest matches that I had in the tournament,” Ferrero said. “Playing Fernando Gonzalez was always special for me because we played many times in the juniors. We played many battles, and obviously he was a very good player on clay.”
Ferrero needed three hours and 29 minutes across five sets, but he was able to manouevre past Gonzalez. Both men won 181 points, and Gonzalez refused to go down without letting loose his powerful groundstrokes, but Ferrero refused to be denied.
The Spaniard was relentless, earning 29 break points and breaking eight times. Ferrero converted his sixth match point, falling to his knees after Gonzalez missed a backhand long.
“It was a very good match,” Ferrero said. “It was one of the keys of the tournament.”
Ferrero then faced another familiar foe in countryman Albert Costa. In the 2002 Roland Garros final, Ferrero got off to a disheartening start against his compatriot. Although he was favoured against then-World No. 22 Costa, it was the underdog who sprinted through the first two sets with the loss of just one game. That deficit proved too large for Ferrero to overcome.
But having been pushed to five sets in four of his first five matches, Costa couldn’t replicate a similar performance, and Ferrero moved within one match of Paris glory once again.
On 8 June 2003, Ferrero was ready to make his mark in tennis’ record books. It wasn’t that he had forgotten about the previous year’s final; he simply believed he was ready for the challenge of facing Dutchman Martin Verkerk.
“I was very prepared. I checked all Verkerk’s matches and he beat some of the favourites like Guillermo Coria and even Carlos Moya, so I watched his game and tried to study his weaknesses. I had a lot of confidence in myself,” Ferrero said. “Everybody was telling me that I was the favourite in the match and that didn’t help me stay very calm, but I was 23. At that time, I was able to manage very well the pressure.”
Ferrero never let slip his guard. He fell behind by a break in the second set, but immediately recovered. The Spaniard was clearly in control of the match, forcing the typically offensive Verkerk on the back foot in rallies. He never let his mind float towards lifting the trophy.
“You’re trying to not think too much about this during the match. But in the third set, when I was two breaks up and serving at the end of the third set, obviously I was able to think that it was almost impossible to lose that match,” Ferrero said. “I knew I had the opportunity to win it. I went into that last game trying to enjoy that moment with my people, with my coach, with my parents. Obviously it was one of the best moments that I had.”
‘El Mosquito’ had few hiccups in the match, breaking seven times en route to a convincing victory. Ferrero crushed an inside-in forehand winner on match point against Verkerk to clinch his first Grand Slam triumph 6-1, 6-3, 6-2, falling to his knees in celebration.
“I remember that of course before I was a bit nervous, but I had the experience already to play in a Grand Slam final and I played many matches with this kind of pressure,” Ferrero said. “I knew that I was prepared to try to fight for the title.”
Ferrero went on to reach No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings just months later on 8 September. Although he never earned Grand Slam glory again, Ferrero will always fondly look back on his unforgettable fortnight in Paris in 2003.
“I like very much watching tennis on TV and in some of the free moments that I have, I try to come back to that time to see matches that I had against great players that I played. Of course, one of the matches I watched many times is the final of that tournament,” Ferrero said. “Definitely it was one of the best moments that I had in my career.”