Why Kei Nishikori will be a factor in the weeks to come

Kei Nishikori is working on his three-peat at the ATP Barcelona 500 the way he does most things: quietly and efficiently. He took another step toward a third consecutive Barcelona title on Thursday with a copasetic third-round win against No. 13 seed Jeremy Chardy. Nishikori, the No. 2 seed, handled him in under 90 minutes, 6-3, 7-5.

Nishikori is 5-foot-10, but he looks smaller, partly because he often wears his ubiquitous baseball cap with the brim tilted skyward, like a character in a comic strip. Chardy is tall and lanky, a heavily bearded Frenchman from Pau, whose serve has plenty of "pow!"

Chardy is no pushover on clay. He's been to the quarterfinals of the Rome 500 and the fourth round of the French Open, where most French players tend to go weak in the knees before two full rounds are completed. So you could take this win as a tribute to Nishikori's prowess on clay -- a facility that's largely overlooked.

The record suggests Nishikori, 26, deserves more credit than he gets -- and not just because this week he's trying to join Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as the only active players to win an ATP 500 or 1000 clay-court event three consecutive times.

Start with the fact that Japanese men have a modest track record in pro tennis at best, and almost no record of clay-court success until Nishikori came along. When he made the quarterfinals at the French Open last year, he was the first Japanese to get that far in 80 years.

At the time, Nishikori told reporters at Roland Garros: "Japanese, Asians, clay is not the best surface for us, you know. I'm trying to make a new step."

True, Nishikori developed his game in the U.S. But it was on the hard courts of the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which has never been famous for churning out clay-court experts.

Over his career on clay, No. 6 ranked Nishikori is 49-20 and 4-7 against top-10 opponents. But he's 4-4 since he upset Roger Federer in Madrid in 2013. Granted, he has just those two Barcelona titles (his other nine career tournament wins were on hard court), but that's no slight of Nishikori's clay game. It's a tribute to the two extraordinary rivals who have already logged their clay three-peats, Nadal and Djokovic.

Nishikori has nothing in common with Nadal, but he easily could be cast as a poor man's Djokovic. The impression was underscored when Nishikori played a brilliant match to upset Djokovic in the US Open semifinals of 2014. That was on hard courts, though, where the slicker court gives Nishikori's relatively flat, heavily angled shots extra pace. Hard courts also reduce the liability inherent in Nishikori's Achilles' heel, the serve -- especially his second serve.

Clay courts demand that Nishikori work extra hard on his serving strategy and execution. If he can start a point from a neutral position or better when he serves, he's in good shape because of his rock-solid groundstrokes. Nishikori's inside-out forehand has improved considerably, and he has the wheels to get around on it and make placements. His backhand is one of the best on the ATP Tour, and these days he isn't afraid to use it to make a transition from defense to offense or to crack it down the line.

One of Nishikori's greatest assets is his intelligent use of court space. It isn't always readily apparent to a viewer, but an extra foot of width on this shot and an extra foot of depth on the next one -- those calibrations add up and spell the difference between a ho-hum rally and a really nicely orchestrated clay-court point. It's the proverbial "chess match" people like to talk about when they praise the clay game.

Then there's the grit. Nishikori has excelled at grinding out points throughout his career, which is part of the job description for a short player with no great weapons. But that talent exists side by side with a tendency to get injured and, oddly, an impulse to overreact to routine aches and pains or minor injuries.

When you take stock of players who could ruin the day for one of tennis' Big Four on clay, the top name on the list is that of No. 5 Stan Wawrinka. In this inquiry, the rankings are dead-on accurate, for the next candidate surely is Nishikori.

Whether or not he goes on to win Barcelona, Nishikori likely will be a force on red clay in the weeks to come.

Kei sera, sera.