The defending champions at the IPTL, the Micromax Indian Aces played against the home team – the Japan Warriors – in Kobe, Japan today. It was the second tie of the second edition of the International Premier Tennis League, and the spectators in Japan were treated to a remarkable tennis feast.
Headlined last year by Roger Federer and with three former World No. 1s – Federer, Pete Sampras and Ana Ivanovic on the squad – the Indian Aces team finished at the top of the table in 2014. They suffered their first defeat in what would be the final 10 days of the tournament.
France’s Fabrice Santoro has stayed on this season as head coach and captain of the team, with doubles World No. 1 Sania Mirza, as well as Rohan Bopanna and Gael Monfils all remaining with the side.
Rafael Nadal makes his IPTL debut this year for the team, replacing Roger Federer; a funny happenstance, as Federer had initially been brought on for the Aces in the 2014 edition to replace a then-injured Nadal.
(For tickets to the Indian Aces matches, click here).
Also with the Aces this year is Australian ace Samantha Stosur, who was brought on at the last moment as WTA Finals winner Agnieszka Radwanska pulled out due to an injury.
It all worked out for the good in Indian Aces’ season-opener though, as they narrowly squeaked past the home side to register a thrilling win. Here's a look at how each of the sets transpired:
Mixed doubles: Sharapova/Herbert (Japan Warriors) vs Mirza/Bopanna (Indian Aces)
Former World No. 1 Maria Sharapova had been due to play with Indian doubles legend and 17-Grand Slam winner Leander Paes against the all-Indian side of doubles World No. 1 Sania Mirza and compatriot Rohan Bopanna. At the last moment, however, it was announced that Paes had been benched, with the Russian ace partnering French doubles expert Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Herbert took the US Open with compatriot and doubles partner Nicolas Mahut earlier this year, beating the Australian-British pair of John Peers and Jamie Murray. Prior to that the pair had also reached the finals of the Australian Open, losing the prize to Simone Bolleli and Fabio Fognini.
As the set began today the two pairs took a game apiece, after which the Japan Warriors broke serve and drew first blood to take a 2-1 lead. But some deft returning work and three aces from the Indian Aces took them to a 5-3 lead, and they looked on course to take the first set.
Herbert and Sharapova were relentless in their pursuit of victory, however, and managed to equalise 5-5, taking the set to a shootout, with the Frenchman pulling out a Federer trademark – the tweener – to take a point.
The Franco-Russian pair hit four aces on the way to taking the set for the Japan Warriors, giving the side a 6-5 lead (games).
Result: Sharapova/Herbert def. Mirza/Bopanna 6-5
Women’s singles: Maria Sharapova (Japan Warriors) vs Samantha Stosur (Indian Aces)
Australian ace Samantha Stosur was a last-minute addition to the tournament, and flew into Kobe this morning as a replacement for Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska. The 27th-ranked Stosur was not going down easy to Sharapova, and the pair broke each other in quick succession – Stosur first, to go level 4-4 in the set.
Sharapova quickly turned the tables to take a 5-4 lead, as Stosur was then forced to stay in the set, which then looked to be on the verge of the evening’s second shootout. This did not happen, however, as Sharapova used her Power Point – which, when used, gives the point-winning player double points – to take victory and give the Japan Warriors a two-set lead and an edge of 12 games to the Aces’9.
Result: Sharapova def. Stosur 6-4
Legends’ singles: Fabrice Santoro (Indian Aces) vs Marat Safin (Japan Warriors)
On paper, Fabrice Santoro was not the favourite going into this match. A doubles specialist, the Frenchman was up against former World No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam singles winner Marat Safin of the Warriors, a future Hall-of-Famer. But Santoro was the standout legends’ player last year, and he seemed ready to unleash his full repertoire of tricks once again.
The pair played out of their skins, serving like players much younger than themselves. Employing ‘newer’ weaponry like tweeners and drop shots, both unleashed some powerful shots, with Safin’s legendary and devastating backhand coming into play during the course of the set.
Although neither pair hit any aces during the course of the match, Santoro took Safin to break point seven times, of which he won two. The Russian remained unable to break his French rival, who took the win 6-2 and with it the day’s first victory for the Indian Aces, as they took a 15-14 game lead over the Warriors.
Result: Santoro def. Safin 6-2
Men’s doubles: Bopanna/Monfils (Indian Aces) vs Nishikori/Herbert
The Aces’ Bopanna fought a closely contested set against Sharapova and Herbert in the mixed doubles matchup with his partner Sania Mirza, and appeared to be in perfect sync with his partner Monfils. Their chemistry was clearly visible on court as the tall pair celebrated each point.
The Frenchman and the Indian were teammates last year, and their camaraderie appears only to have gotten stronger this year, with the two shoulder-bumping following points.
Nishikori, fresh off very strong performances at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, has been in blistering form towards the end of the season. He put his strong shot-making and nimble footwork on full display today, smashing the ball all across court.
His efforts were unfortunately not enough for the Warriors though. The Aces broke their opponents once during the set, which was enough to register a second successive win for them.
The Indian Aces led the Japan Warriors 21 games to 18 at this point.
Result: Bopanna/Monfils def. Nishikori/Herbert 6-4
Men’s Singles: Kei Nishikori (Japan Warriors) vs Gael Monfils (Indian Aces)
Nishikori has tapped into a rich vein of form of late, playing with renewed vigour at the ATP World Tour Finals, and he brought that momentum into the IPTL. Spurred on by wildly cheering home crowds as he played in his home country, Nishikori displayed his athleticism to the fullest, hitting some stellar shots.
Monfils hit four aces in the set with Nishikori not managing a single one, and the Japanese committed 12 unforced errors to his French competitor’s 10. But Nishikori took Monfils to break point three times, capitalising on two of those. He also made the only challenge of the set, taking the point.
Although Nishikori won the set, he was unable to take the home team, the Japan Warriors, to victory as they finished with 24 games to their competitors’ 25.
Last year’s rule, that a team had to win the final set to take victory despite having a lead, has not continued this year. Had that rule still been in use, Monfils and Nishikori would have had to play a shootout to decide overall victory.
Result: Nishikori def. Monfils 6-4