(post to be updated with pictures from tie as soon as they become available)
Ireland and Tunisia are level at one rubber each after day one of their Euro/Africa Group II relegation match in Riverview.
Irish number one Conor Niland began proceedings against Anis Ghorbel, a 22 year old collegiate player at Drake University in Iowa, and after a tight first set eased to a 6-4 6-2 6-1 victory.
In lightning fast conditions, completely unrecognisable from the previous Davis Cup tie at the venue, both players struggled to get a read on returns and there wasn’t a single break point until the marathon tenth game.
Serving to stay in the set, Ghorbel started nervously but showed a lot of heart to save four set points with some big hitting before Niland eventually converted his fifth opportunity.
After Ghorbel saved the second of those set points, a controversial decision angered the Tunisian contingent when American umpire Roger Pennington ruled that the player had touched the net after closing in to stroke a forehand winner.
It looked a harsh call and the Tunisian seemed to carry his frustration into the next set , falling 3-0 behind in no time at all.
By now, Niland was getting a good read on his opponent’s serve and a second break in the final game of the set gave him a 2-0 lead.
It also helped that Ghorbel was concentrating on putting a high percentage of first serves in play but not really doing a lot with them – partially as a result of a minor abdominal strain that required treatment before a third set that Niland ran away with 6-1.
A content Niland felt that the key to the victory was staying patient and riding out his opponent’s first set streak.
“He was serving well and I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Niland of the first set.
“He came out and was very aggressive and was making a lot of balls so he was tough to break. His serve was pretty big and zipping off the courts. It takes a bit of time to settle into your returns and I haven’t played a match since Wimbledon.
“The court is a lot quicker than last time. It was pretty slow against Luxembourg and this is quicker than you usually plan on so it takes some adjusting.
“I did well when I needed to and played some good points. I was pretty happy with it really,” the Irish number one added.
Ghorbel felt that the first set was the key and admitted he lost some belief after succumbing in it.
“I really think I could have won the first set and it could have been different,” he said.
“(Niland) is good but in my mind I had the chance to go and get the win. I started well then at 5-4 it was a tight game and he won an important point when I touched the net. You know, just small details made the difference.
“Once I lost the first set, I didn’t get tired or anything, I just lost some confidence. He started returning my serves really well.
“My abs were bothering me a bit but it’s not an excuse. When I serve it just stretches a little bit and I couldn’t serve as big as in the first set.”
Ghorbel is in second year at Drake University but plans to turn pro when he completes his studies. According to the player, a match against an opponent of Niland’s calibre is an important part of the learning curve.
“It’s a big experience for me,” Ghorbel said.
“I learn from players like Conor. He’s really concentrated on the court and he never gives you a free point.
“I was playing aggressively so he moved me really well and tried to break my rhythm using different spins and slices. I always learn from players like him.”
Next up on court were Barry King and Tunisian number one Malek Jaziri.
Jaziri plays most of his tennis on clay and if the quick court was laid with that in mind then the move may completely backfire.
Jaziri looked completely at home on it. He was ripping forehand winners from all over the place, his deep backhand slices stayed very low and he was even stepping inside the baseline to return serves.
He was also impeccable at the net and generally timed his approaches perfectly.
King got off to a bright start with an ace on the opening point but after getting broken from 30-0 his self-confidence took a battering and before long he was a double break down.
In truth there wasn’t a whole lot he could do against an opponent who was just completely in the zone and the second set followed an identical pattern to the first with Jaziri racing to an early lead, breaking after a six deuce second game, before eventually taking it 6-1.
In the third, King fought hard and began to come back into things. He broke for a 3-1 lead but handed it straight back in the following game.
Jaziri secured the vital second break in the eleventh game of the set before closing the match out with new balls, a perfectly contructed point and deft volley winner on match point crowning an impressive display.
As per norm in Davis Cup, Saturday’s doubles will be crucial and team captain Garry Cahill has sprung a surprise by picking Conor Niland to partner James Cluskey.
To say Niland isn’t usually a big doubles fan would be something of an understatement. He hasn’t played a single doubles match on tour in 2011 and his last Davis Cup outing was against Cyprus back in 2005.
However, with his net skills and superb return game, added to the fact that he is the team’s natural leader, it’s not exactly a controversial by the captain and if it pays off it will look like a masterstroke.
Bring it on.