Ferrer blocks Nishikori's path
If Kei Nishikori is to emulate last year's run to the Australian Open quarterfinals, he must first find a way past the unflashy David Ferrer, tennis's invisible man.
While the top three of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have commanded most of the attention in Melbourne, Ferrer, the world No 4, has again slipped unnoticed through the draw.
Ferrer, described by uber-coach Nick Bollettieri as the world's most underrated player, has barely rated a mention at the Australian Open, despite his ranking and record.
The 30-year-old from Valencia has been in the top 10 for three straight years, won 19 tournaments in his career and amassed US$17.1 million in prize money.
He reached the semifinals of the French Open and US Open last year. His work ethic is legendary, and his tennis at times is dazzling. Yet he walks through Melbourne Park in relative obscurity.
While Djokovic, Federer and Murray speak at crowded press conferences for 20 minutes or longer after every match, only a handful of reporters interviewed Ferrer after his defeat of Marcos Baghdatis in round three.
The media session lasted barely two minutes.
Nishikori, however, knows exactly who and what he is up against in the fourth round on Sunday.
"He's always tough to play," said Nishikori, whose appearance in the last eight last year was the best ever Grand Slam performance by a Japanese man.
"He gets every ball back and is not easy to beat. It's going to be tough, but I have beaten him before. I think I'm in good shape."
Nishikori leads Ferrer 2-1 in their head-to-head, recording a three-set triumph in their last meeting, at the London Olympics.
Japan's world number 18 runs the risk of falling outside the top 20 if he falls short of his impressive run at Melbourne Park last year, when he finally lost in straight sets to Murray.
"It's going to be a very physical match," Ferrer predicted. "He has great shots. Power in all his shots. I will need to be fast in my legs, no?
"He beat me at Olympics, but every match is different. That was on a grass court, in another tournament. Now we are in 2013. You can play your best tennis one day and your worst tennis another day, but I have started the season very good.
"I am confident I will have the will to fight tomorrow. I am focused only on my next match with Nishikori."
If Ferrer is tireless on court, his motivation can be traced back to one legendary incident which shaped his career.
When he slacked off in training as a teenager, his coach, Javier Piles, locked him in a cupboard for three hours with a small amount of bread and water.
Once released, the fuming Ferrer immediately quit the sport, but following a spell working a construction site he decided tennis might be a preferable career path after all.
Now renowned for his torturous physical training, laziness is the last of his concerns.
Once, when asked what he thought about when he was locked in a cupboard for three hours, Ferrer grinned and said: "Not much."
Piles is still his coach.