The defending champion cannot be accused of a lack of self-awareness.

David Ferrer, Davis Cup hero, No 5-ranked player in the world and vanquisher of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the year-ending ATP Tour finals in London, knows his place in the general scheme of things.

Yes, he is ranked five in the world; no, he doesn't feel any closer to extending the club currently known as the Big Four.

"It is difficult, very difficult. Murray, Djokovic, [Rafael] Nadal and Roger [Federer] are at a high level. Better than the other players. For me, my goal is to stay in the top 10 and I don't want to think about anything else than that. I want to focus on the present."


He agrees with the rankings computer and rates Djokovic as the hardest player to beat. "He played unbelievably in the last season," Ferrer said. "For me, he's the hardest rival to beat."

It must have been gratifying, then, to have tipped him over at the Tour finals?

"Yeah, I beat him, but I beat him one time. He was a little bit tired. It was only one match. The important thing is the season and last year Novak was better."

Ferrer's English is halting, but there is little ambiguity about the message: the Big Four can be beaten, but if you want to join that club you have to be consistently brilliant on all surfaces and Ferrer, 29, is a notch below that level.

He knows it, but the benefit of time on the circuit teaches you to concentrate on being the best you can, not to invest all your energy in chasing shadows. The Spaniard's strengths are his consistency and, as one of the game's great retrievers of lost causes, he is especially dangerous on red clay.

"I think I'm a bit closer to winning a Masters 1000 event," he said of the nine top-ranked tournaments outside the four grand slams and ATP Tour finals, "than a grand slam."

He will not start his singles action until tomorrow, having received a first-round bye. He's drawn to face either Czech Lukas Rasol or compatriot Albert Ramos, who play today. He is yet to face either so will be doing some study during their match.

He also teamed up alongside friend and fellow Spaniard Albert Montanes in the doubles. They were last night trailing Austrians Oliver Marach and Alexander Paya 6-2, 5-2 when their match was suspended due to rain.

This is Ferrer's seventh visit to the Heineken Open. He has won the tournament twice, in 2007 and 2011, and has failed to win a game only once, in 2010 when he lost after a first-round bye to Arnaud Clement.

"I like the atmosphere and the support of the crowd. I play well here. I've won twice here and of course I like the city.

"It's a good city to start the year."