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Arriba Chavalito!

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Even though he was an opening- round loser at last week's first Tennis Masters Series tournament of the year, young Juan Carlos Ferrero is ready for his breakthrough on the ATP tour.

To this point, the 21-year-old Spanish prodigy is best known for clinching Spain's first-ever Davis Cup title against Australia in Barcelona last December, but the hard-hitting "Chavalito" is ready to start making some serious noise on the circuit, specifically at the Grand Slams.

Ferrero, who turned pro in 1998, is primed to succeed Alex Corretja as Spain's top player. Currently 23rd in the ATP Champions Race and 12th in the Singles Entry System, Ferrero closed out his 2000 campaign as the No. 12 player in the world. He soared as high as No. 7 last season.

Ferrero's also a rare breed in that, unlike most Spaniards, he actually prefers hard courts over clay. Earlier this month, the Onteniente native captured the hard court Dubai Tennis Championships by holding off injury-slowed fellow "New Balls Please" star Marat Safin in the high-profile final.

"I'm playing well on hard courts," said Ferrero. "I like to play on hard courts, because all my life I've practiced on them, so I feel so good in the Tennis Masters Series tournaments." But that wasn't the case last week, as the lanky athlete bowed out in three sets against pesky Chilean Nicolas Massu in the first round at Indian Wells.

Ferrero is a powerful baseliner with a big serve and many experts feel he has the tools to become No. 1. In 29 years of the world tennis rankings, Carlos Moya is still the lone Spaniard to reach the apex, and that was for a mere two weeks in 1999.

After a slow start to his 2001 season, Ferrero located his game in the United Arab Emirates with impressive victories over Top-10er Magnus Norman, slugging Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty, and Safin, who was trailing 2-6, 1-3 in the championship match when decided to retire due to a back ailment.

Ferrero, of course, is a national hero in Spain thanks to the Davis Cup performance 3 1/2 months ago. He gave Spain an insurmountable 3-1 lead against 27-time champion Australia by upsetting Lleyton Hewitt in the first of Sunday's reverse singles matches at a jam-packed Palau Saint Jordi. The colossal victory gave the Spaniards their elusive first-ever Cup -- one they'd been pursuing for 79 years.

It came as no surprise that after the adulation he received in his homeland following the Davis Cup heroics, Ferrero would take some time to get back into a rhythm.

"Last year was a great moment in my life," said Ferrero. "I reached the semifinals at Roland Garros and the finals in Dubai and Barcelona. It's important for confidence. But I think the more important moment of the last year was when I won the Davis Cup with Spain."

"I think with the match against Hewitt, there was a lot of pressure from everybody...from the captain, from the Spanish people. But I played so good and I'm so happy I finished the year like I did."

"My goal for this year is to finish the year in the ATP Champions Race Top 5, and I want to play the Tennis Masters Cup," said Ferrero. "I think it's possible for me."

As he gets adjusted to life in the fast lane, the motorcycle- loving "Chavalito," or "little kid" as his fellow players call him, is becoming accustomed to his newfound fame.

"After the Davis Cup, it was completely crazy," said Ferrero. "When I walk in the street, or when I go to some restaurants, everyone says something about me. It's difficult to understand because five months ago nobody knew who I was and now everybody wants to say hello. I think in the future I have to get used to it."

Another nickname for the baby-faced Ferrero, who basically looks like your average ballboy, is "Mosquito," due to a wiry physique that's the result of a slight 160 pounds on a respectable 6-foot frame.

If things go Chavalito's way (wasn't that the Brian De Palma film with Al Pacino and Sean Penn?), the 1999 ATP Newcomer of the Year will be the ATP's 2001 Player of the Year.


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