KEY BISCAYNE, FLORIDA – Once again David Ferrer stands in the way of Kei Nishikori.
Nishikori continued his march toward the top 10 on Sunday, when he defeated Xavier Malisse 6-2, 7-5 in the third round of the Sony Open and will next face fifth-ranked Ferrer, who ousted the Japanese star in the last 16 at the Australian Open.
Nishikori has reached the round of 16 of the Sony Open for the second straight year, and while he’s still nursing a sore left abdominal muscle, the world No. 15 is confident he can get past Ferrer this time.
“I’ve got a long way to go but if results like this become the norm, the more confidence I’ll have,” Nishikori said. “I’m not 100 percent yet but hopefully I can pick it up from here.”
In windy conditions, Nishikori was never in danger of losing against the 32-year-old Malisse, whom he dismissed in 1 hour, 24 minutes.
At 5-5 in the second set, Nishikori broke the Belgian — whom he used to look up to as a junior — before going on to win the match.
“It was difficult because of the wind,” Nishikori said. “He was really out of it in the first set so I wanted to get to him early and fast, before he found his way back into the game.
“I was careful not to fall behind because once you do, you let them dictate the pace and I wanted to avoid that at all costs. I’m more sure of myself than I used to be.
“I respect who I play, but I don’t over-respect my opponents anymore.”
On the women’s side, mired in a marathon game midway through the opening set, Maria Sharapova wore down her opponent with characteristic resolve and relentlessness, winning the last point without hitting a shot.
That put Sharapova ahead to stay, and she beat fellow Russian Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-2.
The No. 3-seeded Sharapova moved into the fourth round, eager to fill one of the few holes in her resume. While she completed a career Grand Slam last year, she has never won Key Biscayne, losing the final in 2005, ’06, ’11 and ’12.
“It’s in the back of my mind,” she said. “It’s one of the biggest tournaments for us, and it’s one that I have been the most consistent at, being in four finals, but yet not winning it. I would definitely love to go a step further here.”
Her pivotal moment Sunday came at 3-all in the first set. The next game went to deuce seven times, with Sharapova repeatedly erasing a deficit, until Vesnina dumped a weary second serve into the net on break point.
All told, Sharapova benefited from eight double-faults by the No. 29-seeded Vesnina, and erased eight of the nine break points she faced.
Lauren Davis lost 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 to No. 32-seeded Alize Cornet at the peak of the heat, and their 2½-hour match left both players so exhausted they were taken off the court in wheelchairs. Davis also required treatment in the third set after being stung by a wasp.
Both players later said they were fine.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic defeated No. 254-ranked Somdev Devvarman 6-2, 6-4, then rushed across a causeway to the mainland to watch the second half of the Miami Heat’s 26th consecutive victory in the NBA. Djokovic, seeking his fourth Key Biscayne title and third in a row, next faces No. 15-seeded Tommy Haas, who beat No. 19 Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-3, 6-2.
Haas turns 35 next month and is playing at Key Biscayne for the 12th time.
Among the seeded women to lose were No. 6 Angelique Kerber, No. 11 Nadia Petrova and No. 14 Maria Kirilenko. Kerber was beaten by No. 28 Sorana Cirstea 6-4, 6-0. Petrova was ousted by No. 22 Jelena Jankovic 7-6 (9-7), 6-4. Kirilenko lost to No. 21 Klara Zakopalova 6-2, 7-6 (7-4).