When Juan Martin del Potro was growing up in Tandil, an Argentine town known for its boulders and cold meats, he began playing tennis by hitting against a wall — both at home and at his club, Independiente, where the method is still recommended.
But none of that prepared him for Tuesday. There aren’t many players the 6ft 6in Del Petro can’t blast a hole through once he finds the range on his missiles. David Ferrer, however, did what any self-respecting wall does, and plenty more besides.
Ferrer has incredible head-to-head stats against men 6ft 5in and taller: 3-1 against Marin Cilic and John Isner, 4-0 against Milos Raonic, 2-1 against Ivo Karlovic, 5-3 against Tomas Berdych. The 5ft 9in Spaniard showed just why in improving his record against del Potro to 5-2 with a supremely impressive 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 win in their pre-quarterfinal.
Ferrer played two distinct styles under the roof at Centre Court. On his return games, he trusted his anticipation and reflexes to get the ball in play, ensuring del Potro hadn’t many free points on his first serve. Ferrer then rode around the baseline, rarely retreating any deeper, and retrieved nearly everything, spinning the ball up to buy himself time if he needed it or snapping his ground-strokes on the rise.
On his service games, Ferrer was quick to take the initiative after a solid serve. He camped near the tramline on his left, directing traffic to the del Potro backhand so he could, with a sudden change in direction, exploit the Argentine’s movement wide to his forehand.
Like Sabine Lisicki had against the gangly Maria Sharapova, Ferrer used the body serve to jam del Potro, and stepped in to knock off the feeble return. The match’s best tennis came at 2-2 in the second set.
del Potro had been broken once — in the fourth game — in the first set. He had hurt his left leg after slipping and falling. He had played one brilliant service game, striking a clean ball off both flanks, but it was of no consequence, for it merely reduced the margin of defeat in the first set. He needed desperately to hold serve now, or risk losing everything. Both players realised the importance of the game, for they raised their levels in response. Every time Ferrer brought up a break point with a moment of desperate yet controlled brilliance, running down a near-certain winner and twisting it out of his opponent’s considerable reach, del Potro countered by increasing the pace and aiming closer to the lines. It couldn’t last, and the man who was better playing the percentages prevailed.
Ferrer broke again in the seventh game to seal the second set, but by then del Potro had cracked. He was being forced to play inch-perfect attacking tennis with hardly any safety margin to win mere points, leave alone games. He was making nearly 75 per cent of his first serves and 80 per cent of his returns, but they were getting him nowhere. The frustration of not being able to finish rallies as he is accustomed to had built since the first game, when he had his only break-points of the match; this was now replaced by a quiet inevitability.
del Potro will need to add subtlety to his game if he is to do on grass even a fraction of what his idol, Pete Sampras, did. His attempts at chipping an approach and serving and volleying were encouraging, and at 22, he has time to improve.
Ferrer’s next opponent is a far subtler player although unlike del Potro he hasn’t yet won a Grand Slam.
But if there’s anything one can be certain of, it is that Andy Murray won’t allow Ferrer a look at the same ball twice in a rally — unless it’s intentional.
Murray booked his last-eight spot with a 7-5, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Marin Cilic on No.1 Court before another fine drizzle interrupted play.
There was another, apart from Ferrer, who, on Tuesday, made the quarterfinals for the first time here: Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, who ended Brian Baker’s remarkable renaissance run in straight sets. His compatriot, Florian Mayer, also reached the last eight.
Quarterfinal line-up: Novak Djokovic v Florian Mayer; Roger Federer v Mikhail Youzhny; David Ferrer v Andy Murray; Philipp Kohlschreiber v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.