Andy Murray nearly let his two sets to love lead slip away, before he eventually came through against Kei Nishikori 7-5, 7-6(6), 3-6, 4-6, 6-3 in a marathon match. The match ended in four hours and 54 minutes as Great Britain secured victory against Japan.
Brits Open The Day in Control
Heading into the final day of action in this World Group first round tie, it was advantage to the defending champions Great Britain. The Murray brothers straight sets win in the doubles rubber had given the Brits a 2-1 advantage heading into Sunday's reverse singles rubbers.
Murray and Nishikori had met on six previous occasions, with the Scot winning five of them. The world number two won their last match at the 2015 Montreal Masters 1000 semifinal 6-3, 6-0 and was victorious in their only best of five sets meeting at the 2012 Australian Open quarterfinal in straight sets. The Japanese's only victory over the two-time Grand Slam champion was in the round robin group stages of the ATP World Tour Finals in 2014, which the world number six won 6-4, 6-4.
Murray Makes An Early Move
Nishikori came out of the blocks quickly, already looking better than in his previous match against Dan Evans. The Japanese number one got a break point opportunity in the opening game in a nervy start at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham. Murray responded very well to hold serve and break the Japanese player in the fourth game. Nishikori made a surprising error, after missing a poor overhead to gift the perfect start to the Scot.
Kei Comes Back, Murray Takes The Set Late
It was all looking good for Murray after going up 4-1 in 23 minutes, but his opponent responded with impressive ball striking. Nishikori would really go after his second serve returns to punish the world number two and bring up 0-40 on the Murray serve. After squandering the first two chances, the man from Japan made sure he capitalized on the third chance to complete the comeback from 4-1 to 4-4.
After an excellent hold of serve under pressure in the 9th game, Murray had the opportunity to wrap up a crucial first set on the Nishikori serve. The Scot got to set point, only for the world number six to respond with a series of terrific forehands. That rescued the game and leveled the set once more at 5-5.
After just over an hour of brutal tennis, it was Great Britain who won the first battle after Nishikori produced two untimely double faults to hand Murray a pair of set points. The Scot went long with the backhand on the first opportunity, but was able to grind the Japanese number one down in an exhausting rally to wrap up the set 7-5.
Second Set Momentum Shift
With Murray serving at the start of the next set, the world number two suffered a bit of a lull. Nishikori sensed his opportunity and changed his game plan to be more aggressive. The Japanese number one broke Murray to love, before taking a 30-0 lead on his own serve. The world number two came back to 30-30, only for Nishikori to hold and cap off the perfect start to this set.
Murray Strikes Back
In the fourth game, it looked as if Murray had missed his opportunity after putting an easy volley put-away into the tramlines at 15-30 and then squandering a break point chance at 30-40. That resulted in him smashing his racket in disgust. There was to be no mistake at the next time of asking though with the world number two striking a scintillating backhand down the line winner to level it up at 2-2.
The 7th game was packed full of drama, starting with Murray under pressure at 30-30 on serve. The Brit then thought he had fired down a timely ace down the middle, which registered on the speed gun at a staggering 149 mph. However, the ball was called out and confirmed by Hawkeye. The world number two took the point on the replay and believed he had fired down another big first serve to secure the hold.
Tensions Runs High
An argument then broke out between Great Britain captain Leon Smith and the chair umpire after Japan challenged the call on the previous serve very late. The challenge was accepted and the serve was clearly long, but the Brits were not happy about such a late call. This situation helped to fire Murray up and secure the hold to move in front at 4-3.
Murray was involved in another tough battle in the 9th game, having to recover from 15-30 down. He would hit a brilliant drop shot reply to Nishikori's initial drop shot, to hold for a 5-4 lead. The Japanese number one would have to serve to stay in the set. Nishikori was under pressure once more at 30-30, but on this occasion, managed to put away an overhead at the second attempt to hold to 5-5.
Just like in the first set, Murray had the chances to wrap up the set on the Nishikori serve. He would bring up two set points. The world number six did brilliantly to hold his nerve and save the first with a cross court forehand winner. Murray would then drive three successive backhands over the baseline to let the opportunity slip by as Nishikori held.
Topsy Turvy Tiebreak
Murray, furious with himself after letting the last game slip away, responded emphatically. He took the opening four points in the tiebreak, including an exceptional backhand cross court pass. Just as in previous points in the set, Nishikori came back as the Scot's level dropped. Consistent hitting from the world number six, combined with sloppy mistakes from Murray, saw the Japanese number one win five successive points to turn the tiebreak on its head.
Murray stopped the rot to get to 5-5, but then dropped the slice backhand just long to bring up set point for Japan. The Scot used his bread and butter serve to great effect, hitting an ace out wide on the ad side to head to the change of ends at 6-6. Another excellent use of the serve and volley tactic brought up a third set point for Great Britain. Murray took it after a desperate defensive looped forehand landed plum on the baseline, leading to Nishikori netting the backhand. The second set went to Great Britain, 8-6 in the breaker.
Nishikori Not Giving Up
The Japanese number one would have been understandably disappointed to have lost another hotly contested set, but was not giving up for a moment. The world number six got out of a tricky situation on serve at 30-30, before bringing up a break point opportunity at 30-40 on the Scot's serve. Murray saved the point with another effective serve and volley to held on to level the set at 2-2.
Murray looked to be fatiguing as the third set progressed, capped by dropping serve in the 8th game to leave Nishikori serving for the third set. Murray had the opportunity to comeback at 15-30, but put the cross court backhand service return into the tramlines. As a result, he was punished as Nishikori hit two aces in the same game and secured the set with a brilliant running backhand down the line. Japan was on the comeback, but still trailed 2-1.
Fourth Set: A Battle Of Wills
Murray looked to be on the ropes at the beginning of the fourth set, struggling at 30-30. Two timely first serves were enough to rescue the him and put Murray in front in the set. The second game of the set looked to be going the way of the server, but a nervy looking double fault and missed forehand gave the world number two a break point. Having missed the opportunity, Murray tried to gain another chance. He caught a couple of aggressive second serve returns slightly late though, allowing Nishikori a pivotal hold.
In the next Nishikori service game, it was not until the 10th point when the world number six found his first serve in the game. Fortunately for him, it came at a crucial moment at break point down. That was his only first serve in the game, but it was enough to comeback and secure a great hold to level at 2-2.
It was Murray's turn to face the pressure in the following game and it was a test which he did not pass. Nishikori applied the pressure to get to 15-40. The Scot saved the first with a stunning backhand cross court winner, but the world number six was too strong off an aggressive return on the second. Advantage to Japan.
Nishikori's momentum continued as he struck another heavy blow to Murray's challenge, securing a double break. That left Nishikori the chance to serve to level the match at two sets all. Despite leading 30-15, the Japanese number one was unable to convert. Murray took huge risks with attempted winners, both finding the mark to pull one break back.
Murray forced Nishikori to serve it out for a second time, but this time he answered the call and leveled the match at two sets all. This was the first time Murray had gone to five sets in a Davis Cup singles rubber since 2007, when he defeated Marin Cilic 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
Five Set Thriller
Things went from bad to worse for Murray and the home crowd when he dropped serve at the start of the fifth. However, the world number two was not finished yet. Murray would respond emphatically to break the Japanese number one at-love to level it at 1-1. Murray went on to reel off three games in a row as Nishikori squandered his game points on serve, including missing yet another overhead.
Nishikori had climbed far bigger mountains in this match, therefore being down a mere break was no trouble for the 26-year-old. He would produce amazing tennis to break back. The sixth game of this set was perhaps the most pivotal game in the match. Murray squandered two break point chances, then Nishikori came back with two opportunities to hold. In the end, it was Murray who ripped a forehand return for a winner down the line to secure another break in this set. The lead was 4-2 for Murray.
From 0-30 down and pushed to deuce multiple times in a game lasting over seven minutes, it was the server who came through this time. Murray came up with the big serving when it mattered most to get the hold and move within one game of securing Great Britain's place in the Davis Cup quarterfinals.
As expected with the ebb and flow of this tennis match, even with Nishikori at match points down on serve, the world number six found a way to escape from the game. He would force Murray to serve it out. Murray responded, serving it out in style to secure the win 7-5, 7-6(6), 3-6, 4-6, 6-3.
Great Britain are through to the Davis Cup World Group quarterfinals once more. They will take on Serbia in the next round.