Tennis Canada – Kyle Clapham
After the first day’s results, the Canada – Japan first round Davis Cup World Group tie is set for at least two blockbuster matches beginning with Saturday’s doubles and then followed by the highly-anticipated clash between Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori on Sunday.
Friday’s opening singles went exactly as most observers expected with the world No. 6 and No. 4 singles players in action against players more than 50 spots below them in the rankings.
The day began with Raonic, No. 6, completely bossing Tatsuma Ito 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 in a mere hour and 27 minutes. It continued with Nishikori, ranked No. 4, having a much more difficult time with Vasek Pospisil, but he was the better player when it counted and emerged with a three-set win in two hours and 18 minutes – 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-3.
Not surprisingly, these budding superstars of the sport used the same adjective “solid” to describe their performances.
“I think I played a solid match,” Raonic said. “It’s good to start that way, it being the first match of the weekend (because) you don’t know how things are going to go.”
The match was competitive until the sixth game of the first set with Raonic leading 3-2. But beginning with a break in that game, Ito, ranked No. 85, was only able to hold serve three times in his remaining nine service games.
It was a mismatch and later Ito would say about the redoubtable Raonic serve, “I cannot even touch, even on the second serve, it’s also good.”
Describing his overall play, the 26-year-old Japanese said, “my mind was a little bit defensive. In the third set I was more aggressive. But still it was too late.”
Raonic had 17 aces, won 86 per cent of his first serve points and 66 percent of his second serve points. Watching the match there was a sense that, even though Ito didn’t play that badly, Raonic was just gradually suffocating him with his punishing serve and heavy ground game.
There was an amusing moment afterward when Ito was asked if he had ever before faced a serve like Raonic’s. He paused for a moment, consulted with the translator and then responded in English with a complicit smile, “I think not.”
Raonic now gets a day off before a tie-deciding, regardless of the result of Saturday’s doubles, match against Nishikori. That confrontation will give the tie to Canada or Japan, or force a fifth and decisive match.
With that looming match-up in mind, Raonic, who is 2-4 versus Nishikori but all the matches have been exceedingly competitive, commented on the significance of his winning so convincingly against Ito. “I think it makes a difference if you’re waiting on what happens in a Sunday match,” he said, “sort of sends a message.”
In his own way, Nishikori sent a message with a display of fine tennis. Pospisil served well, at least on his first serve – winning 81 per cent of those points. The second serve was another story as Nishikori showed his class on the return, with Pospisil only able to win 28 percent of those points.
“He’s great on quick surfaces and I need a little more time and, him in particular, he plays very fast,” Pospisil said about Nishikori. “So after the serve, it can be a little bit complicated. Maybe I would have liked to have more time to set up the points, because my strength is my forehand.
“But regardless, I had opportunities in that second set and I got unlucky to lose it. I don’t think he had any break points and I had three (actually two). If I win that second set, it’s a different match just because the crowd gets into it and he’s feeling more pressure.”
As for Nishikori, he summed up, “I tried to concentrate, especially his second serve. I knew he had a great serve so I knew there were only a few chances (he was 3/5 in break points) and I really had to concentrate. I played really solid today. I really returned well. That’s why I was able to win in three sets.”
He did not hide the fact that he will be substituted for Go Soeda and play Saturday’s doubles with Yasutaka Uchiyama. “It’s really important to win in straight sets,” Nishikori said about Friday’s singles. “I played great and with a lot of confidence. I’m looking forward to play tomorrow and to play Sunday.”
He does not believe fatigue will be a factor with him having to play three matches over the weekend. “I’ve got much stronger from last year,” he said. “I was able to play two weeks at the (2014) US Open, and I played two five sets – a couple of long matches. I was able to play seven matches in two weeks. I think that’s pretty good physically. You get tired sometimes but I really feel fresh this week.”
The Japanese team was well supported. In fact, after a hearty bunch of Canadians trekked to Tokyo last February – fatheads and noise-makers in hand – the Japanese have upped their cheer game. They had already made improvements in the support group by the time they played the Czechs at home in the quarter-finals last April.
As can be seen in the picture above, they are ahead of the Canadians in one way – they have a fathead of their captain – Minoru Ueda – while Martin Laurendeau has yet to appear as a giant face among the fanatic Canadian fans.
Canadian captain Laurendeau summed up the opening day, saying, “the two No. 1’s played respective to their rankings. Milos played a really good match, just too good and Kei competed well and came up with some shots and dug out of those sets that went deep.
“The doubles, we knew, was going to be a key factor and it shapes up that way.”
Doubles has been a bit of a chancy proposition for Canada over the last two years.
In 2013, Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil lost in the World Group opening round to Marc Lopez and Marcel Granollers of Spain 6-2 in the fifth set, then defeated Italians Daniele Bracciale and Fabio Fognini 15-13 in the fifth set in the quarter-finals before winning another thriller in Belgrade over Serbians Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic 10-8 in the fifth set of the semifinals.
A year ago, with Pospisil injured, Nestor and Frank Dancevic were beaten 6-3, 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4 by Nishikori and Uchiyama in Tokyo and then, reunited, Nestor and Pospisil lost to Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah of Colombia 7-6(4), 7-6(7), 6-2 in the World Group Playoffs in Halifax. That might not seem like a good omen heading into Saturday. But Canada was up 2-0 on Colombia, so there was a little less pressure on Nestor and Pospisil. Also, people probably underestimated Cabal and Farah, who currently are the No. 8 team in the ATP standings.
There should be extra motivation for Nestor, after losing twice in 2014, as well as confidence after winning two tournaments already this year, including the ATP 500 event in Dubai just last week. He and Pospisil enjoy playing together and not infrequently the 24-year-old Vancouverite has been just as good, or better, than his older, more venerable partner.
Nishikori and Uchiyama are a strong pair with ample doubles talent, but neither has a Grand Slam title like Wimbledon, which both Nestor and Pospisil can boast.
One of the greatest attributes of Davis Cup is doubles. Really, for the only time in the whole tennis year, it’s as meaningful as singles.
Saturday, fans at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre (1 p.m. PST – 4 p.m. EST) should be in for one of the most unique and entertaining spectacles available in any tennis season.
Vancouver Post Card
This is a shot of downtown Vancouver on a day when more than one photographer had the idea that it might be something interesting to shoot.