Andy Murray d. Kei Nishikori 6-7(9), 6-4, 6-4
This year’s court is one of the fastest ever at the o2 Arena - but there was nothing swift about Murray and Nishikori’s marathon encounter on Wednesday afternoon.
A brutal affair from gun to tape, both players ran themselves ragged for the duration, ultimately combining to produce the longest ATP Finals best-of-three match on record at three hours and 20 minutes.
Murray’s victory means he is now in the midst of his best start to a World Tour Finals campaign since his debut in 2008, but the world No.1 had to draw heavily on his much-vaunted energy reserves to come through against a consistently dangerous Nishikori.
An 85-minute first set deservedly went the way of the Japanese, but only after the latest in a series of remarkable tiebreaks at this year’s tournament. Having earlier netted a forehand on a set point of his own, Murray then saved three of Nishikori’s in a row, with the third a moment of defensive genius that only he can produce.
Nishikori finally converted on his fourth opportunity, and as both players headed for the changeover he looked firmly in the ascendancy. The world No.5’s groundstrokes had possessed more bite throughout the opener, more capacity to dictate the play, and he also looked the fresher player.
Resistance and resilience have both been hallmarks of Murray’s rise to the summit, though, and he dug deep in the second set, breaking Nishikori at the first opportunity. But the Brit was constantly under pressure to keep the relentless Japanese at bay, and he eventually relinquished his serve at 4-3. Yet once again he dug in, breaking back immediately before clinching a lengthy service game to force a decider.
By now Nishikori was flagging, and Murray dealt a terminal blow to his opponent’s resolve early in the decider, breaking and then consolidating courtesy of a 10 minute service game for a 3-1 lead. Murray quickly moved 5-1 ahead, and although Nishikori pegged him back to 5-4, the world No.1 served out a minor classic at the second time of asking.
“It was physically tough,” said Murray of the contest.
“He does move the ball around extremely well, better than anyone maybe. It wasn't easy because I wasn't able to dictate many of the points, it felt. I was having to run, fight, get as many balls back as I could.”
“I think the 2-1 game in the third set was very important. I had just broken him. It was a long game, that next one. I think he had one or two breakpoints there. When I won that, I think his head dropped for five minutes. I was up 5-1. Just had a big enough lead to finish it off at 5-4.”
Verdict: After their US Open quarter-final, this is fast becoming one of the most entertaining matchups on the Tour. It wasn’t always the highest quality, but this was a contest replete with drama, and Nishikori could easily have won in straight sets.
However, it is monumentally difficult to put the world No.1 away at the moment, and with 200 ranking points on offer for each round robin win, this was a vital victory for Murray in his rankings tussle with Novak Djokovic. Still, this was some battle, and the time Murray spent on court could have ramifications further down the line…
Stan Wawrinka d. Marin Cilic 7-6(3), 7-6(3)
Once again, when a big occasion arose, Stan Wawrinka produced a performance to match it.
Arguably the pre-eminent big game player on the Tour, Wawrinka took to court on Wednesday night with his semi-final chances hanging in the balance, but bludgeoned his way back into contention with a showing far removed from his meek surrender to Kei Nishikori on Monday.
A match that consisted mostly of huge exchanges from the baseline, Wawrinka came up with the answers when it mattered most in the tiebreaks. Cilic wasn’t without his chances - the Croat missed a backhand on set point in the opener and relinquished a break of serve early on in the second set - but ultimately didn’t serve well enough to keep the Swiss at bay.
“I'm really happy with the way I played in general,” said Wawrinka of his performance.
“I think the level was really high. I'm happy with many things tonight: the way I was mentally on the court, the way I was moving.
“I think I was moving great. I had some good defense, some long rallies. I mixed a lot with my game in general.
“Yeah, it's a great victory for me.”
Verdict: Wawrinka looked excited by the level he discovered on Wednesday night, and the prospect of the Swiss playing himself into form is a concerning one for the rest of the field.
His final rubber against Andy Murray on Friday afternoon promises to be the match of the tournament, and the various permutations for qualification should make for an intriguing final day in the John McEnroe group. Murray needs just a set to proceed, while Wawrinka requires a straight sets win to reach the semi-finals.
Nishikori, meanwhile, will progress with a win of any sort against Marin Cilic, who is already eliminated.
It'll be hard to better Murray's miraculous set point saver this week...
"For everyone interested in tennis, that would probably be the perfect way to end the year" - Andy Murray on a final shootout for the No.1 ranking against Novak Djokovic.