LONDON -- Roger Federer defeated Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori upended Andy Murray to take control of a tough Group B on Day 1 of the ATP World Tour Finals. Federer avenged his loss to Raonic last week at the BNP Paribas Masters with a 6-1, 7-6 (0) win. Nishikori earned his first career win over Murray by a 6-4, 6-4 score.
Federer raced through the first set in 25 minutes, facing no break points on his serve while breaking Raonic three times. Raonic got his teeth into the match in the second set and put more pressure on Federer's serve by earning four break points, including a set point, but couldn't convert. Federer's play took a dip, particularly off the ground, and Raonic was the better player going into the tiebreak.
"I had a couple of games where I was up 40-love up, and both times he came back and got into the game, which was probably my mistake," Federer said. "But it made me uncomfortable. I started to play a bit more passive. He started to become a bit more offensive. I actually think he was the better player from that moment on and deserved the set more than I did."
The Canadian had the momentum but squandered it away in a flash, playing a terrible tiebreak to hand Federer the match. A mistimed forehand on the first point rattled him and Federer raced away with it, winning 7-0. "It's obviously disappointing, very disappointing actually, the way I finished that second set off," Raonic said.
Trying to summon his best tennis from the first match of a tournament was a brand new experience for Raonic, who is making his ATP Finals debut. Now comes another new experience -- still playing in a tournament after you've lost. It's not a feeling tennis players are used to. "I get pretty angry when I lose," Raonic said. "I'm going to have to learn how to slap myself out of it."
While Raonic's tournament debut didn't go as planned, Nishikori had the perfect start, scoring his first win over Murray in four matches. It wasn't the best tennis from either man. They struggled with nerves (Nishikori) and court conditions (Murray). In his tournament debut, Nishikori remained the steadier player off the ground, dictating points and keeping Murray deep behind the baseline. Murray needed a better serving day to get into rhythm and dictate in the rallies. He won just 26 percent of the points (7 of 26) behind his second serve and Nishikori took advantage.
Murray felt the conditions were faster during the match and with a full stadium of people than when he practiced earlier in the week. "It's obviously warmer [with a full crowd], which then makes it quicker, the ball becomes a bit more lively," he said. "At the beginning of the match, there were a lot of mistakes. Then he definitely started playing better at the end of the first set and started feeling a bit more comfortable with those conditions."
"The court is same as Paris, so I was little bit used to, you know, playing this surface," Nishikori said. "But the stadium is huge. I try not to look up too much because there was too many people on the top. Try to stay focused. Maybe when I walk into the stadium, I was nervous, but same time I was really excited to play with this crowd."
Nishikori's 2014 season has been about his ability to score big wins over the game's elite. He beat Federer in Miami, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka at the U.S. Open, and had Rafael Nadal on the ropes before having to retire due to injury in the Madrid final. "I try not to think I can't beat these guys, because I've been beating those top 10 guys already."
On paper, this wasn't an upset. Nishikori is the tournament's No. 4 seed with a career-high ranking at No. 5. Murray is seeded fifth and both men have an opportunity to finish the season at No. 4. But the win was yet another notch on his belt and he credits his improved aggression on court and his growing belief that he belongs with the top guys. Nishikori says he conferred too much respect to his opponents earlier in his career and had to work through it.
"Like first time I played Roger, couldn't play anything 'cause I respect too much," he said. "I wasn't [going] for [the] win actually. I was just, you know, [playing] tennis against my idol. That was one of the problem I had. But after couple years, I got mentally strong. I have to be strong to beat them."
Coached by Michael Chang, Nishikori tipped his cap to the Asian players before him for setting tangible examples of success. "You have to believe yourself," he said. "I think one of the reasons, I see Li Na and Paradorn Srichaphan, I was looking up to them. I felt a lot of motivation from them. I think the key was I think you have to be really strong mentally to beat those top players."
Nishikori will have to summon that mental strength again on Tuesday when he faces Federer. The two have split their meetings this year, with Nishikori winning on hard court in Miami and Federer winning on grass in Halle. Murray and Raonic will face off Tuesday night in a must-win match for both. Murray is 1-3 against Raonic and has never beaten him in a best-of-three format.
"Obviously now I need to win my next two matches more than likely, and win them well if I want to go through," Murray said. The top two players out of each group advance to the semifinals, with the tiebreaker coming down to sets and games won. "That's going to be tricky because Milos obviously played fantastic last week in Paris, and Roger always plays well at this event. So I'm definitely going to have to play better if I want to get through."
Monday sees Group A get underway. Wawrinka plays Tomas Berdych during the day session (9 am ET) and Djokovic takes on Marin Cilic in the evening (3 pm ET). Wawrinka leads the head-to-head 9-5 over Berdych but the big-hitting Czech is by far the more in-form player heading into the tournament, with a win in Stockholm and having made the Bercy semifinals. Cilic will be trying to earn his first career win over Djokovic, having lost all 10 of their meetings.