A swashbuckling Kei Nishikori gave Japan the lead over Colombia in their Davis Cup World Group playoff Friday, only for Santiago Giraldo to play spoiler by winning a cliffhanger to leave the tie dead-locked at 1-1.
World number 12 Nishikori never looked in danger against Alejandro Falla, with two love service games to open the match setting the tone for a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory and giving Japan an early boost in their push for a return to the world group.
But Giraldo gave the Japanese plenty to think about with a battling 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 3-6 6-1 win over Go Soeda after turning on the power in the final set with some brutal hitting on the indoor hard courts in Tokyo.
Nishikori, playing his first match since crashing out of the US Open in the first round last month, went off the boil midway through the second set of the opening rubber, dropping two straight games from 4-2 up, but normal service was quickly resumed and the 23-year-old slammed the door shut with a running cross-court forehand to take the second set.
Falla, ranked 82 places below his opponent, had no answer to Nishikori's firepower and already appeared resigned to his fate when he ballooned a service return high into the stands on match point after an hour and 50 minutes.
"There was a lot of pressure coming into this match," Nishikori told reporters after a successful return to the waterside venue where he won last year's Japan Open and which will stage the tennis competition for the 2020 Olympics.
"I was extra nervous because it's Davis Cup," added Nishikori, who won his third title on the men's ATP Tour in Memphis earlier this year. "But I won in three sets and saved some energy which was important."
Colombian captain Mauricio Hadad insisted his team were where they wanted to be after Giraldo's battling win left the tie on a knife edge.
"Realistically we knew Kei would win his match so we wanted to finish today 1-1," he said. "It makes tomorrow's doubles very important for both teams."
The Japanese were dumped out of the world group by Israel last September, undoing their efforts in returning to the world group for the first time in 27 years.
Nishikori and Soeda take on Robert Farah and Juan Sebastian Cabal in Saturday's doubles.