Kei Nishikori produced a strong performance for the most part to defeat Dan Evans in straight sets 6-3, 7-5, 7-6(3), to level the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between defending champions Great Britain and Japan.
Heading into the afternoon's second rubber after Andy Murray's victory over Taro Daniel, there was a real sense of optimism around the Barclaycard Arena. The man from Birmingham, Evans, was getting the opportunity to play in front of his home crowd. The two players had met once before, with the Brit securing a famous win at the U.S. Open in 2013, defeating Nishikori in straight sets 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. Since then, their careers have been polar opposites. Evans dropped outside the world's top 600 at one point last year, while Nishikori has climbed up to sixth in the world, and reached a Grand Slam final.
Nishikori Strikes First
Evans, currently ranked 157th, made a good start. He held his opening two service games. The Japanese number one settled in and raised his level in the fifth game, changing the pace on his ground strokes. He would secure the first break of the match to take a 3-2 lead. The crowd was delighted to see their man respond instantly, bringing up break point opportunities at 0-40. Nishikori saved the first two, but the Brit sealed the third with an aggressive forehand which the world number six could not return. The set was even at three games all.
Dan Undone By Double Faults
After doing so well to get back on serve, three double faults in his next service game proved to be very costly. This is damaging at any level, but against a top 10 player in the Davis Cup, there was no escape for Evans. He would drop serve once more.
The 9th game was a real battle as Evans served to stay in the opening set. The Brit found big first serves when it mattered most to save five set points, but Nishikori looked the far stronger player. He would take his opportunity on the sixth set point to win it 6-3.
Encouraging Signs For Evans
The world number 157 was under pressure once more in the early stages of the second set. The Brit did very well to fend off the relentless force that is Nishikori, saving multiple break points to hold serve to level the set at two games all. A pivotal moment in the second set came in the 7th game, as Evans found himself with two break point opportunities. Nishikori showed his class in taking control, winning five points in a row to hold serve and take a 4-3 lead.
A series of service holds from both players left the Brit serving to stay in the set at 5-6. Another terrific backhand return winner down the line off of the second serve punished Evans, bringing up two set points. The world number 157 saved the first two, but succumbed to another dreaded double fault on the third set point. Evans now found himself two sets to love down.
Disappointment For Dan
After the huge blow of dropping the second set in the manner in which Evans did, it looked to be a long road back. It could have been made a little easier after a double fault from Nishikori gave the Brit two break point opportunities. Once again, the world number six showed his class. Nishikori reeled off five points in a row, before proceeding to break Evans serve to put himself in cruise control in the second rubber.
The Road To Recovery
Coming back from two sets to love has to start somewhere and for Evans, he would have hoped that breaking back in the third set was the start of that journey. The Brit displayed great fight to earn this opportunity. Despite producing a horrible slice return which went long on the first chance, he was able to draw the error from Nishikori on the second to get back on serve in set number three.
All the momentum was suddenly with Evans as he broke the Japanese number one's serve once again, using his devilish backhand slice to devastating effect to make that three games in a row. Having faced and saved break points at 15-40 in the following game, the momentum looked set to continue as Evans brought up game points. Yet, the unforced errors count continued to pile up for the Brit as Nishikori struck with the inside-out forehand cross court winner to break back.
The Strangeness Of The Third Set Continues
The turning points continued to come thick and fast in this third set as Nishikori threw in some uncharacteristic mistakes to go down 0-40 on serve. Evans went on to break yet again in this set, following a cross court forehand winner. This turned out to be a really topsy-turvy set.
Wouldn't you just know it, after a nearly six minute long game, the world number six found a way to break back against the Brit once again. That would level the third set at four games all. Upon Nishikori holding to take a 5-4 lead, it looked likely that this set had been pointing towards the Japanese number one striking at this moment to break and secure the match. All credit to Evans though, who was having none of it, as he sealed a comprehensive hold. The Brit would end the game with a serve and volley to make it 5-5.
Evans avoided a repeat of what happened at the end of the second set, saving a match point after Nishikori went long with the return. He would move on to hold serve and take the match into a third set tiebreak.
Nishikori Finishes Strong
It was the world number six who got the initial mini-break, leading 2-1. Evans won the following point against the serve, but the man from Japan went into the change of ends leading 4-2. This was an advantage which Nishikori held onto, securing the tiebreak by a 7-3 margin. The final point came as he forced the Brit to go wide with his attempted down-the line-pass.
A somewhat tricky, but in the end fairly straightforward win for the world number six. The pressure was all on the Japanese number one in a must win rubber for Japan, plus there was the added pressure of suffering defeat to Evans at Flushing Meadows two and a half years ago. Evans played well for the most part, but Nishikori was superior throughout. All square after day one in this first round World Group tie. Next up, the crucial doubles rubber on Saturday.