By Simon Cambers
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - David Ferrer has won 19 titles and reached the semi-finals in three of the last five grand slams, yet for all his success, the Spaniard seems further away than ever from claiming one of the sport's major prizes.
"I am trying to do my best every match," the world number five lamented. "But I know they are better than me. What can I do?"
Ferrer's honest assessment came after a 6-2 6-2 6-1 demolition at the hands of world number one Novak Djokovic led to his latest grand slam semi-final failure at the Australian Open on Thursday.
Djokovic's dominant performance provided yet more evidence that there is a growing "us versus them" divide on the men's professional circuit.
Although Ferrer will replace the injured Rafa Nadal at number four when the new rankings are released on Monday, everyone knows that Djokovic, Roger Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray have set themselves apart from the rest.
"You have three tours," former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic told a small group of reporters.
"One for the top four, then a second with Ferrer,(Juan Martin) Del Potro, (Tomas) Berdych and (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga... and then a tour for the rest of the guys," the Croatian added.
"It's kind of funny. We all know who's going to be in the semis and finals, more or less. I would like to see one of these guys... Tsonga, Berdych or Del Potro maybe stepping in and doing some damage but it's too hard."
Murray's U.S. Open victory last September made him only the fourth man other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to win a grand slam title since Andy Roddick won in New York in 2003.
In the 37 slams since, including this one, Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin and Juan Martin Del Potro are the only players that have been able to muscle their way into the exclusive club.
Ferrer is one of the most respected players on tour and is regarded as one of the toughest nuts to crack due to his consistency and superior fitness.
However, when it comes to playing the big boys, he is found wanting, time and again.
"It is difficult to reach even one grand slam final," he admitted.
"Sometimes it does not depend on me, it depends on my opponent. When I made the semi-finals at Roland Garros, at the Australian Open and at the U.S. Open, I lost to the best three players."
The chasing pack have all had their moments, with Tsonga and Berdych both beating Federer to make grand slam semi-finals last year.
Tsonga pushed Federer to five sets in their quarter-final in Melbourne on Wednesday but admitted getting past more than one of the big four is close to impossible.
"In tennis, you cannot lie," the Frenchman said.
"If they are number one, two, three and four, it's because they deserve it and because they are the best players at the moment. That's it."
Federer, who has won 17 grand slam titles, said he thought the difference was down to the top four's agility around the court.
"It's become very much a game of movement," the Swiss said. "Maybe the top guys just move a tiny bit better than the rest of the guys. I'm not sure about that, but it seems like it.
"And I guess in the best‑of‑five, down the stretch, it just seems that we do find a way. I don't know how to explain it."
Murray, who is attempting to win back-to-back grand slam titles, said the five-set format provided the sternest challenge and gave the top players a better chance to let their class and consistency tell.
"You need to be the better player for three‑out‑of‑five," the Scot said.
"There are way more upsets in tournaments that are best‑of‑three in the men's because if you get off to a bad start, guys can get a quick win over you.
"Over best‑of‑five, it can take five hours sometimes to beat the top players in the world."
Nadal's planned return from injury next month is likely to reinforce the gulf but Federer offered the chasing pack a glimmer of hope.
"I think it's nice to see how close the guys are coming (to having big wins)," the 31-year-old said. "I hope they do believe a bit more that they can beat the top guys.
"I mentioned that already when (Lukas) Rosol beat Nadal at Wimbledon, that there should be a bit more belief from the rest of the guys trying to beat the top guys, instead of being down already before the match."
(Editing by John O'Brien)