Great Britain and Japan head into the Saturday doubles rubber with one victory each after Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori won their matches on the opening day of their Davis Cup clash in Birmingham.Andy Murray shook off any rustiness from his five weeks off following the birth of his daughter, Sophia, to comfortably dispatch the Japanese number two, Taro Daniel, 6-1 6-3 6-1. Dan Evans could not cause a major upset against world #6 Kei Nishikori but put up an inspired fight in the second singles rubber of the day in his 6-3 7-5 7-6(3) defeat.
The main question before play began was how fast Murray would come out of the blocks, given his time away from the court. The Brit quickly brushed aside any fears as he won the first eleven points and raced to a 5-0 lead. A nervous looking Daniel saved one set point and got a game on the board but Murray broke straight after to take the opening set 6-1.
In the second set Daniel came into his own, matching Murray blow for blow and neither player managed to carve out a break point in any of the first six games. A sloppy service game at 3-3 ended the Daniel resistance and Murray broke at the first opportunity. Any chance of a fightback from the Japanese 23-year-old was extinguished at the loss of this game, as his body language noticeably dropped. Murray punished this with another break of serve to claim the second set 6-3.
Taro Daniel looked for all the world a beaten man at the start of the third set with Murray quickly bringing up 3-0. There was a nervous moment for the thousands of home fans in the Birmingham Arena as Murray let out an audible yelp after chasing down a drop shot in the fifth game. After moving tentatively on his left ankle for a couple of points, Daniel brought up a break point opportunity. Murray refused to give an inch though, saving the break point and rolling through the last few games to take the final set 6-1.
With Murray safely back in the locker room after just over one and a half hours, all heads turned towards the mouth-watering second tie of the day, Dan Evans vs Kei Nishikori. The pair had famously met during Dan’s run to the fourth round of the US Open in 2013, with Evans producing a 6-4 6-4 6-2 upset.
Birmingham-born Evans got off to a nervous start, serving a double fault on the opening point. Nishikori couldn’t punish him though, as Evans eventually held. Nishikori looked a class above Evans in the opening games, eventually breaking him to take a 3-2 lead. However, Evans came roaring to life, quickly finding himself 0-40 up in the next game. Although Nishikori was able to save two of the break points, Evans pounced on the third with an inch-perfect forehand, levelling the set up again.Breaking became a common occurrence as Evans was not level for long, getting broken in the very next game. A quick hold took Nishikori to 5-3 with Evans serving to stay in the set. The world number six was proving his class, punishing Evans’ second serve. The Brit managed to save five set points in the game but Nishikori curled a delightful winner on the sixth attempt to take the first set 6-3.
After the catalogue of breaks in the first set the two players had settled into a smooth serving rhythm and were playing at the top of their game. Both players held serve reasonably comfortably until the seventh game when Evans created three break points for himself. However, the Japanese star rallied to take the next five points and hold his serve. There would be no more break points until 5-6 when Evans was serving to stay in the set. The Brit saved two break points after going 15-40 down but limply placed a second serve in the net to gift Nishikori the second set.
The match looked to be out of sight when Nishikori broke early in the third set, silencing the home crowd. Evans though, was in no mood to wilt away in front of his home fans, and found another gear to break Nishikori twice and storm to a 3-2 lead. Unfortunately the Brit could not reinforce his break as he was immediately broken back.This strange set took a turn for the ridiculous in the next game when Nishikori missed a simple forehand by some distance to give Evans’ the chance to break for a third consecutive game. The #6 saved one but Evans did not need to be asked a third time, breaking to take a 4-3 lead. In keeping with the theme of the set though, there was to be another imminent break to level it up at 4-4.
With both players beginning to show signs of mental fatigue in their shot selection, the next three games went to serve in comfortable fashion. Evans faced a match point against him at 5-6 but, to the jubilation of the raucous crowd, saved it to force a tie-break.
Both players were competing at the peak of their abilities in the opening points of the tie-break with Nishikori hitting a penetrating backhand passing shot to seal the early mini-break. Evans then forced the error from the Japanese’s racket to tie it up at 2-2. A quick couple of errors from the Brit saw Nishikori lead 4-2 at the change of ends.
Cries of ‘Let’s go Evo, let’s go’, rang around the Birmingham Barclaycard Arena between every point as the fans cheered their man on. Even with the home backing, Evans found himself facing three match points and a wayward forehand sealed the 6-3 7-5 7-6(3) victory. Despite failing to win a set Evans should be extremely proud of his performance as he went toe-to-toe with the former US Open finalist throughout much of the match.
The tie will continue on Saturday with the doubles rubber. Currently the fixture is down to be Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot against Yoshito Nishioka and Yasutaka Uchiyama but that could well change with the possibility of Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori coming into the fray.