Japan take top seeds France to the brink but come up short as Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut secure a 2-1 win in their Group A opener

France fended off a spirited performance from Japan in their opening Group A tie at the Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid Finals, with Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut coming from behind to beat Ben McLachlan and Yasutaka Uchiyama 6-7(4) 6-4 7-5 in the decisive doubles.

The win sealed a 2-1 victory for the 10-time champions after Yoshihito Nishioka, deputising as Japan’s No.1 in the absence of Kei Nishikori, produced one of the performances of his Davis Cup career to down world No.10 Gael Monfils 7-5 6-2 and level the tie following Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s quickfire 6-2 6-1 win over Uchiyama in the opening match.

Herbert and Mahut were broken just once in the contest when serving for the match in the third set but struggled to shake McLachlan and Uchiyama throughout an entertaining contest, slipping behind after dropping the opener.

But the ATP Finals champions kept their composure to grind out the victory, with their trademark brand of swarming net play eventually undoing the Japanese duo.

“They played a very high level,” Mahut admitted. “We know we’ve arrived late from London, but the captain had a lot of confidence in our team. We were 1-1, we really had to win to give France the win. There was a lot of intensity in the win but we’re really happy today – this was a really difficult tie.”

It seemed a world apart from the mood after Tsonga had given France the perfect start at Caja Mágica with victory for the loss of just three games against Uchiyama, particularly when percentage of games won could be a factor in deciding who advances to the knockout stage.

The 34-year-old moved within one Davis Cup match win of ranking among France’s top 10 most successful players in the competition with a confident display from first point to last, taking just 58 minutes to put the French in front.

“I wanted to show to the whole world Japan are still strong”

“It was very important for our team to start well,” said Tsonga, who has climbed back up to No.29 in the rankings after a long injury layoff. “I’m also happy about my game, what I did today, so I hope it continues like this.”

That strong start proved pivotal as Nishioka surged to victory after matching Monfils until late in the first set, capitalising on 42 unforced errors from his opponent to capture the second top-10 win of his career.

“Right now Kei is not here, but I wanted to show to the whole world Japan are still strong,” Nishioka said. “Of course, if Kei was here we’d be more strong, but even when he’s not here we can play. I think today I did that, and hopefully next time Kei is here and we can play better.”

Japan will take some consolation out of Nishioka’s win before their showdown with Serbia, but it is France who await Novak Djokovic and company with a win to their name, a satisfactory start for captain Sebastien Grosjean’s tenure with the team.

“First day at the office!” said a relieved Grosjean. “Nicolas and Pierre-Hugues gave everything – they just had a few minutes to play on the court this morning. And credit to the Japanese team, who played a really good doubles.

“Everything counts here. It’s not only one tie to go through, it’s two ties, and you have to play well in both. We saw upsets yesterday in a few matches, today as well. It’s a tough competition, the level is very high. But we won the tie, and we’ll try to do the same on Thursday.”

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