Japan and Canada are deadlocked 1-1 following the opening day of play in their Davis Cup World Group first-round tie at Ariake Coliseum.
Japan No. 1 Kei Nishikori staked the host nation to a 1-0 lead with a straight-sets (6-4, 6-4, 6-4) victory over Canada No. 2 Peter Polansky in the opening singles match, before Frank Dancevic leveled the tie with a 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) 6-1 win over Japan No. 2 Go Soeda.
Nishikori, ranked 18th in the world, was made to work against his 135th-ranked opponent, who fought gamely in defeat under the closed roof.
The 24-year-old Nishikori prevailed in a slugfest that saw both players playing primarily from the baseline on the recently resurfaced hardcourt.
Japan is trying to advance to the second round in the World Group for the first time ever.
Canada suffered a blow on Thursday when its top-ranked player, Milos Raonic (No. 11), was forced to withdraw from the tie with a foot injury.
Nishikori rallied to win the opening set after falling behind 4-2. There were five breaks of serve in a set that saw momentum swing back and forth.
Nishikori broke Canada’s No. 2 in the first game of the match, then held serve to go up 2-0 and looked like he was on his way. Polansky battled back, however, taking four straight games as Nishikori committed a high number of unforced errors.
But just as soon as Nishikori lost his way, he rediscovered it. He broke in the seventh game, then reeled off three games more to take the set 6-4.
“I was a bit tight in the first set,” said Nishikori. “That is why I missed a lot of shots. My serve just wasn’t there today.”
The second set was on serve until the fifth game, when Nishikori prevailed in a 12-minute battle that featured several lengthy rallies. He then held serve the rest of the way and claimed the set 6-4 to go up 2-0.
With the two-set lead, Nishikori ripped several winners in the final set. He broke Polansky in the fifth game to go up 3-2, then again in the seventh for a 5-3 advantage.
Nishikori had a match point in the ninth game, but Polansky held on. Nishikori then closed out the contest on serve 6-4.
Despite the victory, Nishikori felt the tie is still evenly matched.
“It’s too bad that Milos is out, but they still have very good singles players,” he stated. “I think it is going to be close.”
Nishikori and Polansky came up together in the junior ranks and even played doubles together for a time.
“Of course we are both playing for our countries and trying to win, but it’s not always easy playing against a longtime friend,” he acknowledged.
Polansky felt the match was closer than the final score reflected.
“I think it was a pretty good match,” he said. “We both played well. I had some chance in the first set.”
Polansky, 25, felt the outcome was decided on a handful of points.
“He played a little better on some of the bigger points today,” he noted. “That was the difference.”
Polansky admitted that the loss of Raonic put Canada in a tough spot.
“It is more difficult on the team without Milos,” he commented. “When you lose a player, we have to keep pushing through.”
Dancevic used a strong serve and booming ground strokes to overpower Soeda in straight sets. Dancevic pounded 16 aces in the win.
After trailing 4-1 in the opening set, Dancevic came back to claim it 6-4, then took control of the match by taking the second-set tiebreak 7-2.
Dancevic put on a clinical performance in the final set, finishing Soeda off 6-1 in just 32 minutes with an ace on match point.
“My serve is key in my game,” he said. “It is one of my weapons. I came up with some aces when I needed them.”
Soeda had nearly twice as many unforced errors (39-22) as his opponent in the loss.
“I was really happy with my performance today,” said Dancevic. “He started off well and that made me focus. As the match went on I felt like I was getting more and more confidence.”
“My serve was not good enough. I could not hold my games,” said Soeda. “Frank has a big serve like Milos, so that made it tough.”
Canada captain Martin Laurendeau seemed satisfied with a split on the first day.
“Both No. 1′s won and did their jobs. Nishikori and Frank both played well,” he said. “This is a big point for us after losing Milos. We’re going to savor this win and then assess where we are for tomorrow.”
Japan captain Minoru Ueda did not want to dwell on his side losing the second match.
“Kei and Go did their best. I think both need to work on their serves,” he noted. “Today’s result is over and we have to get refreshed and look ahead.”
Yuichi Sugita and Yasutaka Uchiyama will meet Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil in Saturday’s doubles, with the reverse singles set for Sunday.
Japan beat Colombia 3-2 last September to return to the World Group following a one-year absence.
Canada lost in the semifinals last fall to Serbia 3-2.