Andy Murray diagnosed his serve as the major factor in his straight-sets defeat by Kei Nishikori in the opening match of the 2014 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
Murray had never lost to Nishikori and his greater experience of playing at the World Tour Finals – he has competed at the season-ending championships five times, four since they have been held at London’s o2 Arena – might have been expected to stand him in good stead against the Japanese player, making his debut as one of the ‘elite eight’.
But Nishikori’s higher ranking – he currently sits at world no. 5 – reflects the fact that he has enjoyed a much better year than Murray, claiming four titles and reaching a first Grand Slam final at the US Open. And although it was not precisely a classic encounter, with plenty of scrappy play from both men and both squandering a break lead, it was Nishikori who played with more intent and focus, exploiting Murray’s vulnerabilities – especially on second serve – to record a surprisingly straightforward 6-4, 6-4 victory.
‘I didn’t serve well enough today,’ Murray said. ‘I would say that was the biggest difference in the match. And when you’re not serving well, obviously on your own service games you want to be looking to dictate the points. When you’re returning, you kind of dictate when you have the opportunity. You don’t always have the chance if someone’s serving well. […]
‘He was able to dictate a lot of points, especially behind my second serve. That was the part of the match where he had the upper hand. That was the difference.’
While Murray served seven aces and landed 58% of first deliveries compared to Nishikori’s eight double faults and 46% accuracy on first serve, Murray won only 27% of points behind his second serve, with Nishikori succeeding in landing some clean return winners at key junctures in the match – at 4-5 in both sets with Murray serving to stay in them, especially.
Murray, who at one point called the trainer to check out a ‘slight tightness’ in his calf, rejected suggestions that fatigue was to blame for his poor performance, although it seems an obvious explanation after the six consecutive weeks of tennis Murray played to qualify for the World Tour Finals.
‘I felt okay on the court today,’ he said. ‘I don’t think that was the reason why I lost the match. I guess if I was to play a three-hour match which was extremely physical, then maybe I would feel fatigued in the later stages of a match like that.
'But obviously now I need to win my next two matches more than likely, and win them well if I want to go through. That’s going to be tricky because Milos obviously played fantastic last week in Paris, and Roger always plays well at this event. So I’m definitely going to have to play better if I want to get through.’
As Murray’s comments suggest, his opening loss has made life extremely difficult for himself if he wants to reach the semifinals this week – he will need convincing victories over Milos Raonic and Roger Federer, and to hope that Nishikori beats Raonic.
But Murray was also quick to praise his opponent when asked how Nishikori’s game has changed since the last time they met, which was in 2013.
‘I think he hasn’t made big changes to technique or any of his shots particularly, but he’s playing with more confidence,’ he said. ‘Because of that, he’s able to take more chances and be a little bit more aggressive than he was previously.
‘But he’s always been a tough guy to play against because from the back of the court, he’s able to take the ball early. He can change [the] direction of the ball. He’s got a lot of talent in his hand. Even when you get the ball in difficult spots on the court, he’s a good shot-maker. He’s always been able to do that. But with the confidence, he’s a bit more consistent throughout the course of the match, as well.’