So, Scotland’s finest is to face Japan’s rising son for a place in the semifinals of the Australian Open: Andy Murray against Kei Nishikori.
Neither nation has a great history of Grand Slam champions (in that department, the match-up is perfectly balanced at no wins each) but that does not stop the locals back home getting over excited. In Nishikori, Japan has found its most successful tennis player of the Open era (he matched Shuzo Matsuoka’s last, remaining record on Monday by reaching the last eight here) while in Murray, Scotland knows it has a world beater on its hands.
The two have only met once before and it was last year in the semifinals of the Shanghai Rolex Masters. At the time, Murray was taking Asia by storm – he had won in Bangkok and Tokyo on his way to Shanghai – and he absolutely marmalised Nishikori 6-3, 6-0. But that was Nishikori’s first appearance in a semifinal at such a rarefied level and taking on the world No.4 on his way to yet another title was asking a little too much of the Japanese. But from that result, Nishikori kicked on and, ranked a career-high No.30 the following week, he went on to beat Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic in Basel before losing to Roger Federer in the final. Ending the year as the world’s 25th best player, Nishikori had come of age.
“Andy, we played last year, end of last year,” Nishikori recalled. “He kind of destroy me. But, you know, I have no pressure now. He's one of the players; I have to play like him. I learn a lot of things from him. Yeah, it's going to be tough, but I try to do my best tennis.”
His route to today’s match has been long and it has been arduous. He took five sets to get the better of Matthew Ebden in the second round, another four sets to beat Julien Benneteau in the third and five punishing sets to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth. At only 5ft 10ins tall and a slender 150lbs in weight, that is an awful lot of tennis for a wee man.
Still, now that he has managed to stay fit for a few months – Nishikori has been plagued by injuries throughout his career – the man from Shimane has been working hard in the off-season and came through that three-and-a-half Tsonga epic tired but still standing. After hours in the gym, he looks a little bigger than he did last year and against the powerful Frenchman, he was able to win from every quarter of the court.
“Kei is playing really, really well,” Murray said, admiringly. “[I've] practised with him a few times. He's very good. You know, very deceptive. For somebody that's not the tallest guy, he creates a lot of power from the back of the court. He deals with pace well. He can slice. He moves well. He was hitting a lot of winners out there. He was dictating all the points from the back of the court which is difficult against someone like Tsonga. He's one a few long matches here as well. Every time I saw him in Brisbane the last few weeks, I've seen him in the gym a lot. I think he's gotten in better shape, as well. He's doing well.”
But Murray has been doing rather well, too, this past week or so. After a tricky and nervy first round – he dropped a set against Ryan Harrison – the Scot has been cruising along, barely breaking a sweat as the rounds have gone by. With Ivan Lendl to advise him on the finer points of Grand Slam preparations, he is looking relaxed, playing well and keeping everything, from his emotions to his second serve, under control.
In order to protect himself from the hurly-burly of life at Melbourne Park, Murray has been practising in the peace and quiet of Kooyong. It is a trick he learned years ago – keep as far away from the match courts as possible until it is time to play – and one he employs whenever possible at the major events. Just like Lendl used to do, in fact.
"I used to do it this way at the French, over here and at Flushing,” Lendl said. “On any day you don't have to come here, it takes less out of you mentally and physically because nobody is tugging away at you. It's just the four or five of us there, nobody around.
"They treat us nicely. Andy can get his physio done there, you get a really nice lunch, it's very quiet instead of being in the rushed atmosphere over here. We have the court to ourselves. I found it beneficial for me."
But do not be fooled by the cheery, laid-back manner of Team Murray; they are here on a mission and that mission is nowhere near completed yet. Nishikori is just the next step on what the gang hopes will be a seven-step program in Melbourne. And Lendl believes that this time Murray can finally take that last step and lift the trophy. He would not have taken the coaching gig is he did not have complete confidence in his charge’s abilities.
"I wasn't hired to get Andy to the quarters," Lendl said. "We all know that. He doesn't need me to get to the quarters or semis. He's done that without me and he could do that without me again.
“I think part of that is maturing. He is still fairly young. He will be 25 this year. I think you need some experience and some players learn quicker than others. I was one of the slower learners in that. You just go, do your thing, keep doing it and when the door is open you just step through it, but you have to be ready to step through it.”
Nishikori will find out just how ready Murray is on Wednesday afternoon.