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Romania wins late match to tie Japan

by James Mulligan

OSAKA — Japan’s Davis Cup playoff against Romania is on a knife-edge going into the second day after Takao Suzuki beat Victor Hanescu to put the hosts up 1-0 before Andrei Pavel leveled the tie with victory over Go Soeda.

World No. 216 Suzuki made sure of a sterling start for Japan at Namihaya Dome Main Arena in Osaka on Friday with a 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) victory over 198-cm Hanescu, before 33-year-old Pavel downed Soeda, 10 years his junior, 6-3, 6-7 (7-9), 7-5, 6-3.

All eyes turn now toward Saturday’s doubles, when Suzuki and Satoshi Iwabuchi are scheduled to take on Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau.

Japan is playing host to the Europeans this weekend in the best-of-five tie and it is the two countries’ first-ever tournament meeting. Japan, led by captain Eiji Takeuchi, is gunning for its first World Group playoff tie victory which would enable it to advance to the World Group for the first time since 1985.

Japan No. 1 Suzuki, ranked 110 places below Hanescu, tore into the Romanian on a fast surface that suited the home player more than the visitor, who won his latest tournament on clay. Suzuki, who turned 31 on Thursday, scorched in 19 aces to improve his career Davis Cup record to 34-18.

“It was vital we won this first match,” said Suzuki. “It was a match I was able to control and it was definitely an advantage playing at home. Of all my Davis Cup victories, this is one of the most memorable.”

Soeda was disappointed he couldn’t add to Suzuki’s impressive start.

“I suppose I was a little impatient at times and I was sort of overwhelmed by Pavel’s net play and other shots,” said Soeda. “All in all, though, I don’t regret the way I approached the game.”

Takeuchi said that experience counted for a lot in the two matches, with the thirty-somethings of Suzuki and Pavel triumphing over the twenty-somethings of Hanescu and Soeda.

“I think experience definitely counted,” Takeuchi said. “Both matches were tough but the guy with more experience came through.

“Go found out today that he needs a little more consistency . . . especially with slice shots or high defense balls. Andrei did so well with his all-around game, so I think Go learned a lot from him to become a better all-around player.”

Romanian captain Adrian Marcu was not surprised by the closeness of the tie after the first day.

“It was like all Davis Cup matches,” said Marcu. “The result so far, 1-1, is OK. It was very important to stay in the match, so we have Pavel to thank.

“In the first match, Suzuki played very well, beyond what I thought he could do. In the second match, Andrei played well, but he made life harder as he could have won in three sets.”

In the opening rubber, things were even in the first set, but buoyed by the crowd Suzuki started to give Hanescu trouble with heavily spun first and second serves. He won the first set on an ace.

The second set was easy for the smiling Suzuki as he steamrollered his way past a player Takeuchi believed was still struggling with the remnants of jet lag, even though the Romanians arrived last Saturday.

Hanescu delved deep into his energy reserves to give Suzuki a game of it in the third, but the Japanese’s superior class was evident again in the tiebreak, the crowd favorite finishing with a flourish of top-quality passing, serving and volleying.

“Suzuki played very well today and was very focused,” said Hanescu. “His serve was excellent — I didn’t expect to see Takao serving so good.”