World no. 5 Kei Nishikori made an impressive debut at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals as he defeated Andy Murray 6-4, 6-4 in the first match of the week.
Murray was 3-0 against Nishikori coming in and while the British player was expected to be tired after the six consecutive weeks of tennis he played after the US Open in order to secure his qualification for London, it’s also been a long and draining year for Nishikori, who was all but wrung out after reaching the US Open final and then moving on to win back-to-back titles in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.
But while Murray has won a trio of titles as part of his autumn campaign, it’s not been a successful or easy year for the British player, while for Nishikori it has seen the one-time ‘Project 45’ blooming into a Grand Slam threat and a genuine challenger to the top players. And it was the world no. 5 who was the more confident, focused and incisive as they took to the court for the first match in Group B at a packed o2 Arena on Sunday.
It was actually Murray who made the brighter start, with Nishikori double-faulting twice in his first service game, then having to save break point after he landed an attacking forehand in the net at 1-1. After digging himself out of 0-30 at 1-2, Murray found himself with three break points at 2-2 after some wild backhand misses from Nishikori and broke to take the lead when the Japanese player double-faulted.
Murray had not, however, done a tremendous amount to earn that break of serve and it showed as he played a poor game when he attempted to consolidate the break, handing it back to love after a couple of loose errors and a double-fault of his own.
From that point, Nishikori really looked the stronger player as he worked to be more aggressive both on and behind returns. With Murray serving at 58% for the match, Nishikori consistently targeted his second serve which was particularly weak today and it put Murray under pressure on serve time and time again.
Murray achieved some success in the early stages by bringing Nishikori in to net: The Japanese player often elected to hit back to Murray and proved reluctant to volley into the open court, losing some significant points that way. But at 4-4 after being pegged back to deuce with just those tactics, Nishikori attacked the net of his own volition and found some good volleys to win the point. Holding serve, he turned the tables on Murray as the British player served to stay in the first set with a deft drop shot winner before earning two set points with an inside-in forehand down the line return winner. Murray hit an abysmal drop shot into the net – his seventeenth unforced error for a boon of just five winners - and the set was gone.
Nishikori manufactured another break of serve to lead 2-0 in the second set after an utterly disguised drop shot winner, and Murray had to save three break points with dogged defence to avoid falling behind 0-4 before Nishikori dropped a careless game to be broken back.
But despite the squandered lead and lifeline dropped into his hands, Murray didn’t really succeed in finding anything – particularly his serve or his backhand – to make it seem possible that he could take the match to a third set and at 4-5, Nishikori attacked again. Landing a clean backhand down the line return winner, Nishikori was once again the first player to inject pace with his backhand for a Murray backhand error and a match point, promptly converted as the first Asian-born man to qualify for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals recorded a debut win.