Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna were simply outclassed in the opening singles and India went 0-2 behind Japan in the Davis Cup World Group play-off here Friday.
India No.1 Somdev was outwitted 3-6, 4-6, 5-7 by Yuichi Sugita, who produced an amazing mix of scintillating power and precision to give Japan the first match.
It was then left to Rohan Bopanna to put India on even keel in the second singles. However, the doubles exponent, who only plays singles in the Davis Cup, was no match to Japan's top player Kei Nishikori, the highest world-ranked player in the tie at 55, losing 3-6, 2-6, 2-6 in an hour-and-a-half.
Bopanna, who had outlasted Nishikori in five sets when the two met the last time in the Davis Cup three years ago in Delhi, just could not stop the Japanese from rolling over.
The opening day's losses have made the doubles tie Saturday all the more crucial for India. The visitors will miss the services of their doubles expert Leander Paes who along with Mahesh Bhupathi had often won the pivotal doubles.
In the absence of Paes, Bopanna, who has emerged as a potent doubles player, is likely to partner Bhupathi against Go Soeda and Nishikori to keep India alive in the tie.
Though India had tentatively named Vishnu Vardhan for the doubles, he is likely to be replaced as rule permits a team to change its combination till an hour before the match.
On the other hand, Japan, who entered the play-off with a 4-1 defeat of Uzbekistan in Kobe, will be looking to return to the top tier of the competition for the first time since 1985.
Japan's drive was given an unexpected boost by Sugita who battered Somdev into submission with an array of power-packed strokes.
The lowest ranked among the Japanese team at 175, Sugita was the surprise pick for the opening singles, but the youngster vindicated his captain Eiji Takeuchi's confidence.
Egged on by a sizeable crowd in hot conditions, the 22-year-old not only lived up to his promise by stunning a the Indian who is a Tour regular and ranked 65th but in fact, reduced the contest into a one-sided affair.
Sugita, who had lost to the Indian in their only previous meeting at the Aptos Challenger last year, served with purpose and was not broken even once over the two and a half hour battle.
Astonishingly, he won all critical games at love. The only time his serve came under pressure was in the fourth game of the first set when he was down 30-40 but wriggled out with ease.
Sugita, who celebrates his 23rd birthday Sunday, pounced aggressively on the returns. He was clearly an ace up against the Indian, anticipating well and unleashing his well-directed grounstrokes, especially the forehand shots, that invariably left the Indian stranded at the baseline.
The sheer pace and depth of Sugita's strokes forced Somdev to helplessly push his returns short for the Japanese to unerringly hit winners.
Somdev also struggled with his first serve and his shoulder seemed to trouble him. He took a medical time-out in the third game of the third set and again needed treatment during the changeover before the last game of the match.
Sugita, too, suffered cramps in the third set but stuck it out to see the match through.
The Japanese needed just a break each in the three sets to make sure that there is no coming back by the Indian.
Sugita had early breaks in the first two sets to go 3-1 up. He hardly allowed any room for Somdev to extend the rallies. His punishing his forehand gave him quick opportunities to finish off the points. Somdev did try to shift gears by attacking Japanese's forehand and also came to the net, but Sugita was simply irrepressible. He confidently went for the lines and produced some breathtaking angles to keep up the pressure.
Somdev did put up a fight in the third set but in the eleventh game at 15-30, Sugita produced two stunning forehand winners to earn a break point. A shanked forehand return from the Indian gave him the break and Sugita served out the match without losing a point.
Bopanna was clearly out of depth against Nishkori, who has come a long way since the two last played. The Japanese never looked like easing the grip over the match and his fluent hitting left the India groping.
India lead Japan 18-3 head-to-head in the Davis Cup. They beat Japan 3-2 in their last meeting in 2008. India have finished runners-up on three occasions, in 1966, 1974 and 1987, but are yet to lift the trophy.