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Japan returns to Davis Cup World Group after playoff fightback

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Victories by Kei Nishikori and Go Soeda in reverse singles rallied Japan past Colombia to a 3-2 triumph in their Davis Cup World Group playoff at Ariake Colosseum on Sunday afternoon.

The win puts Japan back in the World Group for 2014 after it played this year in the Asia-Oceania Zone.

Japan No. 1 Nishikori defeated Colombia No. 1 Santiago Giraldo in straight sets 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the opener before a partisan crowd, while Soeda downed Alejandro Falla 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the dramatic final rubber.

Nishikori, ranked 12th, once again relied on his powerful forehand and deep returns as he notched a comprehensive victory over Giraldo, No. 85 in the world, to keep the host nation in the tie.

Japan No. 2 Soeda, ranked 131st, then sprayed the court with winners from the baseline repeatedly against Colombia No. 2 Falla after dropping the opening set.

Falla, who has been out of action for three weeks due to injury, appeared to tire as the match wore on.

Japan captain Minoru Ueda was relieved after the hardfought battle.

“Colombia was a very tough team,” he said. “We really had to raise our level. We showed we could do it. It was a great victory for us.”

Nishikori came out very aggressive, moving Giraldo around the court with huge forehands and forced him into 19 errors in an opening set that lasted just 21 minutes. Nishikori broke in the second game and led 3-0 before the Colombian held serve for 3-1.

Giraldo, who suffered from peritonitis last year and a subsequent infection following surgery and has been slowly climbing back up the rankings, could not find the answer on this day. Nishikori continued the onslaught in the second set, breaking in the fifth and seventh games on the way to wrapping up the set in 33 minutes.

The Colombian, who has been ranked as high as 39th, fought hard but could not turn the tide. Nishikori broke to move ahead 4-3 and brought matters to a conclusion in 1 hour, 43 minutes.

Giraldo had 61 unforced errors to Nishikori’s 31 in the loss.

“We were under pressure and I am the No. 1 player, so I had to win to lift the team spirit,” commented Nishikori. “I tried to serve well today. I wanted to attack and make my rhythm quicker. The fast court here suits my game.”

The 23-year-old Nishikori said he has been working on his servce recently.

“My serve was not good at the U.S. Open,” he noted. “I put in more time on it in practice. I also tried for quicker timing because we were playing indoors.”

“Kei played very good today,” said Giraldo. “The conditions were perfect for him. I was tired from my match with Soeda but did my best.”

The crucial point in the final match came in the seventh game of the third set, after the players had split the first two sets.

Soeda broke to go up 4-3, held serve, then broke again to take the set 6-3.

With Soeda a point from going up 3-0 in the final set, Falla, ranked 93rd, dug in and fought back to break for 2-1.

The players stayed on serve until the eighth game, when Soeda broke for 5-3 when Falla double faulted. Soeda then closed it out on serve.

Soeda wept after the win which he called “the biggest of my career.”

“I felt a lot of pressure while waiting for my match,” he recalled. “I tried not to have any negative thoughts . . . I tried to stay positive.”

Soeda said he was able to employ his strategy throughout the match.

“I just tried to remain aggressive and not fall into any type of defensive tactics,” he said. “I wanted to keep the pressure on.”

“Go increased his level as the match went on,” stated Falla. “I fought the whole way, but this is the way it goes sometimes. His forehand was solid from the baseline today.”

Colombia captain Mauricio Hadad reflected on the defeat.

“This is a tough loss for us. Nishikori played very well,” he noted. “Soeda played better than Friday. We thought we would win one of the singles today.”

Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah gave Colombia a 2-1 lead with a straight sets 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Tatsuma Ito and Yuichi Sugita in doubles on Saturday.

In Friday’s opening singles, Nishikori defeated Falla in straight sets 6-3, 6-4, 6 4 before Santiago Giraldo outlasted Soeda in five sets 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 in the second contest to level the tie.

Japan had returned to the top level for the first time in 27 years last year, but was unable to stay there following losses to Croatia and Israel.

Colombia was trying to earn a spot in the World Group for the first time.