Given their respective world rankings, it should have been no surprise when Kei Nishikori beat Andy Murray yesterday in the opening match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, but there was no mistaking the sense of anticlimax among the 17,500 capacity crowd here at the year-end championships.
After all his efforts in winning three titles in the space of six weeks to earn his place in London, the Scot’s 6-4, 6-4 defeat was a crushing disappointment. The tournament’s round-robin format means that he can still qualify for the semi-finals, but the likelihood is that he will have to beat both Roger Federer and Milos Raonic in his remaining group matches in order to do so. His next match will be against Raonic tomorrow, the Canadian having lost 6-1, 7-6 to Federer last night.
While there was no shame in losing to the US open finalist Nishikori, ranked one place higher at No 5 in the world, it was the manner of Murray’s defeat that was the greatest concern. The Scot made too many unforced errors and played with little imagination or aggression.
Nishikori, making his debut in the tournament, looked a bag of nerves in the early stages – as did Murray – but from the middle of the first set started to show some of the form which has seen him break through so many barriers lately. The 24-year-old Japanese, a flamboyant shot-maker who makes up for his comparative lack of physical strength with a combination of energy and flair, this year became the first Asian-born man to play in a Grand Slam final and the first to qualify for these year-end championships.
While Nishikori’s serving statistics in the match were worse than Murray’s – he made eight double-faults to his opponent’s three and put only 46 per cent of his first serves in court compared with Murray’s 58 per cent – the Scot said afterwards: “I didn’t serve well enough. That was the biggest difference in the match.
“On your own service games you want to be looking to dictate the points. When you’re returning, you dictate when you have the opportunity. You don’t always have the chance if someone’s serving well. He was able to dictate a lot of points, especially behind my second serve.”
There had been speculation about the reception Murray might receive following his support for Scottish independence in the referendum campaign, but he was handed a rousing welcome into the arena. His opponent admitted afterwards that he had been nervous because of the size of the crowd and had tried not to look up at them.
Nishikori, who had lost all three of his previous meetings with Murray, made two double-faults in his first service game and was the first to drop serve, double-faulting on break point in the fifth game.
It seemed the perfect opportunity for Murray to take charge, but as he has done on too many occasions the Scot allowed his opponent to break back immediately. Murray dropped his serve to love thanks to two double-faults and a missed forehand and backhand.
When Murray served at 4-5 and 15-40 he saved one set point with some baseline aggression, but on the second netted a poor drop shot.
Nishikori, who won five games in a row, went 3-0 up in the second set. Murray broke back in the seventh game as the Japanese missed two volleys in succession, after which the Scot sent for the trainer to have treatment on his left leg.
“I just felt a slight tightness in my calf,” he said afterwards. “I moved fine after that. It was just a precaution. No issue.”
Murray faltered again when he served to stay in the match at 4-5. From 15-30 he missed two successive backhands as Nishikori secured victory in an hour and 35 minutes.
Raonic, Murray’s next opponent, has one of the biggest serves in the game, though it could not save the 6ft 5in Canadian from defeat against Federer. The 33-year-old Swiss took command from the moment he broke serve in the second game here.
Federer, who beat the world No 8 in the Wimbledon semi-finals this summer, broke again in the sixth game and took the opening set in just 25 minutes. Raonic, making his debut in this tournament, had four break points in the second set – including a set point at 5-6 – but was unable to take any of them. Federer went on to win the tie-break 7-0.Reuse content