NEW YORK -- Have you ever heard of David Ferrer? I thought not, but don't fret. This doesn't make you some hopeless ignoramus.
Even the tennis zealots for whom the name "David Ferrer" has become a mainstay know that David Ferrer is sort of like a healthy but unimposing tree in the yard that you notice only every few months. He might get to the fourth round of a Grand Slam without reports of anybody ever really seeing him. Oh, he lost. That means he must have been here.
The bustling majority of humanity that does not follow tennis would not know David Ferrer if he knocked on their door next Tuesday afternoon, which means they would have no idea he has almost $15 million in career earnings, which means they would not even know to ask him for a loan.
They certainly would not know that if the world had 7,037,403,425 people in it as of Wednesday morning, David Ferrer was better at tennis than 7,037,403,420 of them and worse than four. They would not know that David Ferrer not only holds down the No. 5 ranking but has just about built a house with a picket fence there, and has held either No. 5 or No. 6 for 71 of the past 73 rankings periods, through almost all of 2011 and 2012. They would not know that only three players have reached the quarterfinals of all four 2012 Grand Slams: Roger Federer, Andy Murray and David Ferrer (with a fourth due momentarily in Novak Djokovic).
In this not-knowing they have ample excuses, even beyond the fact that relatively few humans follow tennis intricately.
Excuse No. 1: David Ferrer toils in a four-giant era of the game that boasts a starry top tier of unprecedented hegemony. Picture a tennis Mount Rushmore with the faces of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, and then Murray as Theodore Roosevelt, the somewhat-less-exalted guy. Maybe then you could dig out some binoculars, look beneath the mountain and find David Ferrer hitting against the rock, retrieving every ball, of course. These days, the gaping space between Nos. 4 and 5 might as well be Greenland.
Excuse No. 2: Even within that hegemony, one of the four is Spanish. Anybody who hails from the same country as Nadal is going to rummage around in the shadow of that dashing, imposing, overarching presence.
Excuse No. 3: Not only does David Ferrer -- I keep repeating the name here for familiarization purposes -- play a game of solidity, born of an absence of weakness rather than strength, but comb through the ATP Tour height listings. At 5-foot-9, he's the shortest guy in the top 10, and also would be the fifth-shortest person in the women's top 10 (tied with Serena Williams). He's also the shortest guy in the top 25. And in the top 50, and the top 75. You have to go all the way to Jesse Levine at No. 76 to find someone similarly 5-foot-9. Sit in an interview room waiting for David Ferrer, nod off for a moment, and on his entry you might wonder fleetingly, That's him, right? His presence does not fill a room. He has enviable eyes, but you have to get pretty close to note enviable eyes.
Excuse No. 4: David Ferrer's English is commendable but not completely fluent. This would be no sin even in a world in which, say, Egyptians might apologize to you -- "My English is not very good" -- in an Arabic-speaking country. You can make an argument that David Ferrer hails from the greatest athletic country in the world at the moment, but for promotional purposes, English reigns. In a press conference Tuesday night, for example, he got tripped up on a reporter's use of the phrase "under the radar."
Excuse No. 5: That's apt, because part of David Ferrer's mailing address might be Under The Radar (perhaps a neighborhood in gorgeous Valencia, where he resides). Ask him after a U.S. Open win over Lleyton Hewitt about his lack of attention, and he will say without a trace of resentment, "No, I do not care." Ask him after a U.S. Open win over Richard Gasquet: "I don't care."
He really, breezily, does not care.
At the Australian Open, they asked him if the gap between the big four and the big remainder could be closed, and he said, "No, I don't think so."
Beautiful in its simplicity. Twice he has beaten Nadal in momentous Grand Slam moments, in a 2007 U.S. Open fourth round that went to 1:50 a.m., and in a 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal that ended Nadal's push to hoard all four Slam trophies at once. Twice, the after-chatter centered on Nadal's physical state. Twice, Ferrer agreed that the aftermath should center on Nadal's physical state. "Is a fantastic person," Nadal said of Ferrer. Even as recently as Wimbledon 2012, Murray had to correct somebody who cited the outdated branding of David Ferrer as a clay-court specialist.
So David Ferrer dwells in a happy zone of anonymous fame but non-famous anonymity. He does have fans. I found one, a friend of a friend. She's Marissa, an American resident of California. She attends one or two tournaments per year. She first appreciated Ferrer by accident, while following Nadal in that wee-hours 2007 match. "Sadly, I've never met a fellow Ferrer fan," she writes, soon adding, "I'd estimate that over the past year, I've talked to a couple dozen tennis fans, ranging from regular followers to casual fans who only check during Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Only a handful of them knew who Ferrer was, and, of those, maybe only one cared enough to follow his results throughout the year."
On this past Sunday morning at Louis Armstrong Stadium, the No. 2 stadium on the U.S. Open grounds, it's a bit surprising to hear the swell of cheering at Ferrer's introduction. These must be the hardcores. These might even be the people who have sat through an entire Ferrer match that does not also involve one of the four supernovas.
Do that, and you might realize how appreciation for Ferrer comes: slowly, painstakingly. Hewitt: "He's not going to blow you off the court out there, but he's going to make you work for every single point." Federer once said Ferrer has the best return in the game, and Ferrer said, "Roger said that?" Marissa, the fan: "I admire the solid, relentless quality of Ferrer's game. His game isn't really sexy or flashy, but it also doesn't have any glaring weakness. Best of all, he never gives up."
Especially as Hewitt gets five set points in the first set on Sunday, and Gasquet four set points in the second set on Tuesday, you get this sense: It can be bloody hard to get a point against David Ferrer. Now, it can be bloody hard to get a point against any of these guys, but maybe it's just a distinctive notch bloody harder to get a point against Ferrer. His tennis is work, and watching his tennis is work. His nicknames have included "The Wall," but it's a wall that moves, of course. He saved all nine of said set points. For his 19-shot match-point rally against Gasquet, he ran around way behind the baseline, but sent back stout defense.
At 30, two years after his ranking dipped down to No. 23, he has inched back to toilsome, tranquil near-prominence, further evidence of the game's tilt toward the aged because of its gathering physicality. Why is David Ferrer better now? "I improve of course my mentality," he said. "I have more experience and this is more easy for me."
His match with Hewitt might have gone five tiebreakers given two dogged grinders, but Ferrer wrapped it up in four by 7-6 (11-9), 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, then said in broken English, "He won me the second set, but I think he was more tired than me." Hewitt mentioned to Australian TV reporters that he came an inch from a two-set lead, but quickly smiled and added that even this was moot because, anyway, "You're never done with him."
Who knew, but at No. 5 in a big-four era dwells a game that's both barely watchable and hugely admirable.