The victory sets up an intriguing clash in the next round with Serbia, who edged past Kazakhstan 3-2 in Belgrade after Novak Djokovic rallied to beat Mikhail Kukushkin 6-7 (7-6), 7-6 (7-3), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the deciding rubber. It means Djokovic and Murray, currently the world’s top-ranked players, will likely come head-to-head when the two countries meet in Serbia in July.
Murray led by two sets to love against Nishikori yesterday afternoon but faced losing from that position for the first time in 11 years only to grind out a 7-5 7-6 (8-6) 3-6 4-6 6-3 victory after four hours and 54 minutes at Birmingham’s Barclaycard Arena.
That clinched a 3-1 first-round win over Japan for Britain, with Murray winning all three points for the fourth successive tie.
None of the previous ones had been as tough as this as world No 6 Nishikori, the highest-ranked player Murray had faced in the competition, simply refused to lie down.
New father Murray had not played a match for a month prior to the weekend’s tie and that seemed to catch up with him in the fourth set but he refused to be beaten in front of a raucous crowd. “The crowd helped for sure. I was struggling a little at the end of the third and a little bit throughout the fourth,” said Murray.
“There were long rallies, he was pushing me quite far off the baseline. I was trying to keep the points short but in the fifth I had to grit my teeth, fight hard and I managed to get the win.”
Great Britain captain Leon Smith reserved the highest praise for Murray, saying: “I’m pretty much lost for words. He’s just a man of steel.
“It’s quite astonishing considering Andy hasn’t played since the Australian Open final. He’s amazing. It’s an absolute privilege to sit with him for a match like that and we’ll remember that one for a very long time.”
Nishikori, with his quick hands and quick feet, is a major talent and one of the best strikers of a ball. He showed the danger facing Murray in the opening point, putting together a series of crisp groundstrokes before finding the line with a forehand.
He recovered from 4-1 to 4-4 but two double faults in the final game of that first set presented Murray with a golden chance. The Scot still had to work extremely hard to take it, finally forcing Nishikori into a mistake at the end of a rally of superb quality.
Murray was the one to go down an early break in the second as his stress levels rose and, when he missed a break point to get back on level terms in the fourth game, he smashed his racquet so hard against his foot that it broke.
That earned him a warning from the umpire but he channelled his aggression in the right way on the next point with a sumptuous backhand winner.
He could not take two set points in the 12th game and then saw a 4-0 lead in the tie-break turn into a 5-4 deficit. But he found a way, saving a set point with an ace and then taking his first chance when some trademark great defence paid off with a Nishikori error.
There was little indication that things were about to take a downward turn in the third set until a double fault gave Nishikori a break point at 3-4. He took it and then clinched the set with a beautifully-threaded backhand winner down the line.
The Scot was like a tightly-coiled spring as he desperately tried to get his country across the line but he could not take his chances, missing two break points early in the fourth and Nishikori took the match to a deciding set.
Fatigue was visibly taking over Murray’s body and omens were not good when he dropped serve at the start of the fifth but the noise level reached fever pitch as he hit back with three games in a row. Nishikori broke back but then Murray slammed a forehand winner down the line at the end of a game that felt tie-deciding.
The same could be said of the next as Murray withstood a barrage of pressure to hold and then created two match points at 5-2, both of which Nishikori saved. But the Japanese resistance finally ended at the fourth time of asking, beaten into submission by the brilliance of Murray.
The Scot can now head home to Surrey to spend a bit more time with daughter Sophia before flying to Indian Wells for the first Masters event of the year. “It’s Kim’s first Mother’s Day,” said Murray. “I’ll try to get back for bath time and put her to sleep.”