Andy Murray’s attempt to rewrite another page of Britain’s tennis history has gone back on hold. The world No 8 had put his country on the brink of their first Davis Cup semi-final for 33 years, but Italy’s clay-court specialists finally came good in Naples yesterday to give the home team a 3-2 triumph.
Murray’s singles victory over Andreas Seppi and subsequent doubles triumph alongside Colin Fleming had given Britain a 2-1 lead on Saturday, but his physical exertions seemed to take their toll in the reverse singles. Murray, who had suffered with a stomach bug in the build-up to this quarter-final, lost 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 to Fabio Fognini before Seppi completed the home team’s comeback by beating James Ward 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.
It was a disappointing end for the visiting team after the excitement of the first two days, but Italy had always been the favourites given home advantage and the choice of playing surface. Fognini, who has won three clay-court titles in the last year in his climb to No 13 in the world, has become one of the game’s best players on clay, while Seppi, the world No 34, underlined his position 127 places above Ward in the rankings.
Besides, this was only the second defeat Britain have suffered in Leon Smith’s 10 matches as captain. In his first match in charge four years ago Britain had to beat Turkey to avoid relegation to the Davis Cup’s fourth and bottom tier for the first time. They have come a long way since then.
We shall never know the answer to the question, but might yesterday’s outcome have been different if Ross Hutchins had partnered Fleming in Saturday’s doubles against Fognini and Simone Bolelli? Smith would have been a brave captain to rest his best player, but Hutchins and Fleming are regular partners. Murray played superbly – and is clearly a far superior player to Hutchins – but a spark seemed to be missing from his game in the first of the reverse singles.
Fognini, meanwhile, finally got his mojo working. The temperamental Italian No 1 had sulked and skulked around the court for much of the first two days, but in full flow he is a magnificent player to watch. An outrageous shot-maker with lightning-quick feet and reactions, he fed off the support of a raucous crowd, in which the 700-strong British contingent were finally outshouted.
Murray started well enough, winning three of the first four games as Fognini allowed himself to get upset by some barracking from a section of the British crowd. The tide turned, however, when Fognini won nine points in a row in the middle of the first set. From 3-1 down the Italian No 1 won the next five games in succession.
The second set followed a similar pattern. From 3-2 down Fognini claimed four games in a row, Murray double-faulting to hand him the set. The third set was tight, but Fognini made his final break when Murray served to stay in the match. It ended the Scot’s run of 19 consecutive singles victories in Davis Cup rubbers. His only previous defeat was on his singles debut against Stanislas Wawrinka nine years ago.
“Fabio played very well,” Murray said. “He’s a very good player, especially on this surface, so I knew it was going to be a tough one. I wasn’t able to play well enough. I did OK physically – not the best, but I’ve been worse.”
Fognini said it had been his best Davis Cup performance: “I was annoyed yesterday after the doubles. I just stayed focused on my game and I managed to win.”
Ward had secured a crucial win against the American Sam Querrey in the previous round, but the Londoner never looked capable of repeating that feat against Seppi. There were seven breaks of serve in the first set, which ended with Ward making three successive errors. Thereafter Seppi kept his grip on the match as Italy completed their 11th victory in their last 12 Davis Cup meetings with Britain.
Italy now face Switzerland in the semi-finals. The Swiss had teetered on the brink against Kazakhstan when Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka lost the doubles in Geneva to Aleksandr Nedovyesov and Andrey Golubev, but order was restored yesterday. Wawrinka beat Mikhail Kukushkin to level the tie and Federer completed the victory by beating Golubev in straight sets.
The Czech Republic, who are going for a third successive Davis Cup title, will meet France in the other semi-final. The Czechs overwhelmed Japan 5-0, while France recovered from 2-0 down to beat an injury-hit German team 3-2.
Britain, having already secured their place in the World Group for 2015, will not play again until the first round early next year. After three successive away ties Smith said he hoped that his team would have a home draw when the names are pulled out of the hat in September.
Wherever they appear next, Britain will hope to play on a better surface than they did in Naples. Bounces were unpredictable in the temporary stadium and an area of soft clay behind one of the baselines was plainly dangerous.
Murray said the court was so bad that the Association of Tennis Professionals would not have allowed a tournament on the main tour to go ahead on it. Nobody was blaming the surface for the result, but the International Tennis Federation should demand some explanations.