If he didn't seem like such a nice guy, it would be very easy to dislike Juan Carlos Ferrero. The former French Open winner and centre-court heart-throb appears to have so successfully negotiated the difficult transition from international sports star to off-court impresario that it's hard not to envy his charmed life.
Ferrero's on-court performances may have paled since his career peak in 2003, when he was the number-one ranked player in the world. But if, at 28, Ferrero the sporting legend has faded a little, Ferrero the brand is today stronger than ever. With a tennis academy, a gorgeous new hotel and a Grand Slam tennis tournament title to his name, he could hardly be accused of dropping the ball.
His self-titled Hotel Ferrero, set amid the hills about an hour's drive from the Mediterranean city of Valencia, opened in 2007 and is already the designer bolthole of choice for weekenders from Madrid and Barcelona.
"People know Juan Carlos all over the world and they come here because of that," says hotel manager Alicia Fuertes. Guided by his long-time mentor and coach Antonio Martinez, Ferrero bought a 100-year-old mansion in 2004 and spent nearly $14 million transforming it into the stunning 12-room inn.
The Valencian architect Luis Sendra gave the former private home a sexy makeover that blends its finest original features with must-have modern amenities such as a rock-star pool, subterranean spa and the destination restaurant Gavara. It is a beautiful property likely to win the hearts of both the jet set and the traditional old-money crowd.
Behind the palazzo's French provincial blue exterior, each of the rooms has a distinctive décor: the Suite Blanc is an all-white bedroom with a Juliet balcony above a spreading fig tree; the Mirador Suite, Ferrero's favourite, is decked in chartreuse and dark orange and has a bay-window spa and a terrace above the pool, while Suite Nakura features African wood sculptures and a private sundeck.
The interiors are a contemporary blend of Gandia Blasco and Casa Desus furnishings, ethnic artefacts, Hermès toiletries, Bang & Olufsen hardware and Baccarat crystal.
The 12-hectare grounds, meanwhile, feature perfect lawns, tree-lined walks, formal gardens of roses and lavender and a walnut orchard.
Every aspect of the hotel's design is so precisely finished that staying here feels like being on a particularly glamorous movie set. There are countless moments when some little detail will surprise or delight; the room key, for example, is presented to guests on a silver handcuff. Unlike a film set, however, the Ferrero has a vibrant, unmistakable personality.
JCF - Ferrero's shorthand moniker - doesn't claim full credit for the finished product, explaining that he couldn't be present at every stage of the building's evolution. But he certainly oversaw the process and exercised his right of veto when the designers' tastes clashed with his own.
Speaking to Gourmet Traveller during a break from training at his nearby academy, the shy but charming tennis star says he wanted his debut hotel to be a building with "a little bit of magic. The one thing I wanted was a modern interior, but the exterior is old and I think this mix makes it special," he says.
The property's location appealed to him because he grew up in a neighbouring village, Onteniente, though Ferrero concedes he did worry about its remoteness. There are few tourist attractions in the vicinity, though the nearby village of Bocairent is a picturesque medieval hamlet situated on a hillside. "You couldn't imagine at the beginning how are people going to come to this hotel," he says. "But there are a lot of people who just want to spend two or three days having good food and being in good rooms."
The good food comes courtesy of Valencian chef Silvia Gavara who oversees the hotel's restaurant, also called Gavara. Ferrero has developed a passion for fine cuisine and restaurants (El Bulli and San Sebastian's Arzak are his favourites in Spain) and wants to create his own destination dining room.
"I went to all the important restaurants in Spain and I started to like very much this kind of world, so the idea was born to make this hotel with a very good restaurant," he explains.
The menu, like the hotel, takes the traditional and makes it modern: a layered knuckle of milk-fed veal comes with an apple and potato emulsion; Riofrío caviar is paired with bone marrow and poached egg; and, typically for Valencia, there is a selection of plates showcasing the region's famous produce.
"It will take time before people know it," Ferrero says. "But reviewers have been here and said it's amazing. I think we are on the [Michelin Guide] level of two stars now, but to start with we are looking for that first one…"
We stayed on a Monday, sadly the one night Gavara is closed, but, if the next day's breakfast was any indication, this is definitely a restaurant to be reckoned with. It was the best breakfast I'd had in Spain and probably the best I've had anywhere in Europe. Highlights of the endless spread included imaginative fresh juices - pear, strawberry and pineapple - a platter of the finest Spanish meats and cheeses, and treats such as walnut muffins filled with a single slice of brie and tiny homemade rolls stuffed with tuna and alioli, jamón, spicy sausage or smoked salmon. All of it served on Limoges porcelain.
The restaurant, a light-filled, marble-floored space of crystal chandeliers and silver candelabras, overlooks the mansion's original plantings of grandfather pines, figs and gnarled olives, and beyond that to the romantic outline of Bocairent.
Ferrero lives a short drive away, in the opposite direction, at his academy in Villena. He moved there at the age of 10 to begin training. Now he is part-owner, with coach Martinez, of the JCF Tennis Academy. Its professional competitor program counts Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin among its alumni.
Ferrero's strikingly modern home - a concrete and glass compound, again designed by Sendra - sits behind a high fence in a field of tennis courts. Ferrero shares it with an old school friend and four Lhasa Apso dogs. He plans to open a golf course and housing estate nearby.
For now, however, he is concentrating on the 2009 Valencia Open Tennis Tournament, which he also runs. This year it will be held at the city's newly completed Agora, the latest addition to Santiago Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences complex. The Agora is the fantastic, final piece of an architectural collection that includes an opera house and science museum.
"I think it's going to be an amazing tournament, one of the best in the world because of the location," says Ferrero.
Oh, and, believe it or not, he is thinking of opening a second hotel in Spain, too. "But for the moment we are going to stand by and see how this goes," he adds. "Maybe wait a year or two."
Ferrero says he is just trying to keep busy. He knows his playing career won't sustain him forever. He needs other projects to occupy him and keep him close to home: "I don't like to be all day doing nothing. I like to wake up and know I have something to do. It doesn't matter if I don't get rich. And I want to be part of the future of the Valencian community. Right now I think Valencia is in the spotlight - it's one of the special places of the world."