Andy Murray trawled deep into his energy reserves to outlast Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-7(9) 6-4 6-4 on Wednesday in the longest match since the ATP World Tour Finals moved to London.
The misfiring world No 1 looked in trouble when Nishikori edged a hair-raising tiebreak to win an 85-minute opening set but hit back to win in three hours and 20 minutes.
It was revenge for the five-set defeat he suffered at the hands of Nishikori in the US Open quarterfinals – his last Tour level loss since embarking on a 21-match winning streak that allowed him to end Novak Djokovic’s 122-week hold on power.
“I just fought really hard. Kei was making me run and was dictating the points, but then I was starting to get a few free points on my serve and made him work hard on his return,” Murray, battling to end the year at No 1, said.
“I eventually got over the line. These are the sort of matches you work so hard for.”
With two wins from two in the John McEnroe group, Murray will be assured of a semifinal spot if Marin Cilic beats Stanislas Wawrinka in the delayed evening session.
Murray will want to claim a third group victory against Wawrinka on Friday, however, as that would earn him another 200 rankings points in his bid to stay ahead of Djokovic who is already guaranteed reaching the semis.
“Hopefully there will be another three days to this season and I’ll do my best to get through them,” Murray said.
Murray’s game was out of kilter throughout a first set in which Nishikori’s punchy groundstrokes led the Scot a merry dance. But he stubbornly kept his nose in front.
He saved break points in the third, fifth and 11th games, took verbal aim at coach Ivan Lendl and the rest of his crew and at one point the wedding ring he ties to a lace of his military style black shoes broke loose.
Murray scolded himself for wasting a set point at 6-5 on the Nishikori serve and then found himself 6-3 down in a tiebreak that had the O2 Arena crowd on the edge of their seats.
Nishikori missed with a running forehand on his first set point before Murray tucked away a forehand to save the second.
The Scot saved a third in astonishing fashion as Nishikori, with acre of blue court gaping, swatted a volley that Murray some how clawed back and past him from almost the front row of the seats.
A dumbfounded Nishikori then saved two set points – at 6-7 and 8-9 – the second when he needed two smashes to get the ball past a clambering Murray. He then converted his fifth set point when Murray yanked a forehand wide.
The world No 5’s level dipped at the start of the second set and Murray broke, only to hand back the advantage as an inspired Nishikori levelled at 4-4 with a fizzing backhand.
Murray was on the ropes and Nishikori looked favourite when he had a game point for 5-4 but came up second best in a lung-burning rally that stretched both to breaking point.
The Scot duly broke and, with some difficulty, pocketed the second set after Nishikori squandered more break points.
Even when Murray went 5-1 ahead in the decider there was still a twist as Nishikori reeled off three games before Murray eventually sealed victory.