Not much has gone Andy Murray’s way of late so perhaps it should have been no surprise when the Scot was struck down by a stomach bug on Thursday on the eve of Britain’s biggest Davis Cup tie for 28 years. Unless Murray’s entry into the fray is delayed by the weather – and rain is forecast for the next two days – the Scot will have to make a rapid recovery if Leon Smith’s team are to win their World Group quarter-final against Italy on clay in Naples.
“Andy’s got some sort of virus which has made him feel pretty poorly over the last 24 hours in particular,” Smith said. “It is important to give him a lot of rest and recovery. That’s why he didn’t attend the draw, to spend time with the doctor and stay at the hotel away from the rest of the group. Hopefully, he can be fit and play a big part in the weekend, which I’m sure he will. He’s a fighter and obviously desperate to play.”
Although Murray missed the formalities of Thursday's draw and did not train during the day, he had recovered sufficiently to take part in an evening practice session. That raised British hopes, as the world No 8 will surely need to be near his best to overcome Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi, ranked No 13 and No 34 in the world respectively. Fognini is one of the game’s most improved players, having won three clay-court titles in the last year – three more than Murray has won in his entire career.
The one bonus for Britain, particularly in view of the weather forecast, is that Murray and Seppi will not be first on court on Friday. That honour goes to Fognini and James Ward, who has been preferred to Dan Evans as the visiting team’s second singles player. The doubles will be played on Saturday and the reverse singles on Sunday, though the tie could finish as late as Tuesday if the weather intervenes.
Ward was one of the heroes of Britain’s first-round triumph on clay away to the United States, when his victory over Sam Querrey paved the way for the team’s first win in the World Group since 1986. However, the world No 161 would need to take another step up in class to repeat those heroics this weekend.
If Britain are to prevail their three wins would probably have to come from Murray’s two singles matches and the doubles. Ross Hutchins, just three months into his comeback after a year’s absence while being treated for cancer, was on Thursday called into the squad in place of Evans. The doubles specialist is set to line up alongside his regular partner, Colin Fleming, though Murray could yet partner the latter.
The Italians have several possible permutations in the doubles. Simone Bolelli and Paolo Lorenzi are their nominated pair, but Bolelli and Fognini have reached two Grand Slam semi-finals together.
Fognini, nevertheless, may not be risked in the doubles as he goes into the tie having been troubled recently by a leg muscle problem, though he insists he is fit.
Murray’s latest setback follows a comeback from back surgery, the ending of his partnership with Ivan Lendl and a run of patchy results, leaving him on his lowest world ranking for six years. Clay, moreover, has always been a major challenge for the Scot, whose back problems have been aggravated in the past by playing on it.
The players have reported the surface at the Tennis Club Napoli is less than perfect, with unpredictable bounces, though the specially constructed 6,000-seat stadium is a spectacular venue. The seats on one side are in the colour and shape of a Union flag, which will go down well with the 700 British supporters who have made the trip.
Italy have beaten Britain 10 times in the last 11 meetings between the two countries, the most recent in 1984. The hosts will be attempting to reach their first World Group semi-final for 16 years, while Britain’s most recent appearance in the last four was in 1981, when they lost 5-0 away to Argentina. Britain’s last World Group quarter-final ended in a 4-1 victory for Australia at Wimbledon in 1986.
Corrado Barazzutti, Italy’s captain, described this weekend’s tie as “very balanced”. Smith saw his team as “slight underdogs” but added: “We have a great team. We have a Wimbledon champion at our disposal, which is amazing. I think we have a great chance of winning. If it’s been 33 years since we’ve been in the semis and 16 for Italy then I guess it’s our turn now, because we’ve been out longer.”
The reward for this weekend’s winners will be a semi-final in September, probably against Switzerland, who are favourites to beat Kazakhstan in Geneva. Britain would have home advantage against the Swiss, which could set up the mouth-watering possibility of Murray and company taking on Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka at Wimbledon.
It is all a far cry from the early days of Smith’s reign as captain. His first tie in the summer of 2010 was a play-off against Turkey, which Britain had to win to avoid being relegated for the first time to the Davis Cup’s fourth and bottom tier. Fleming and Ward both played in that tie. “It’s been an amazing team journey,” Fleming said on Thursday. “A lot of people have played a part in that.”