Britain's long wait to rejoin the Fed Cup's World Group will continue for another year. Judy Murray's team fell one tie short of returning to the elite competition for the second year in succession when Argentina completed a 3-1 victory in yesterday's play-off in Buenos Aires.
The loss of Heather Watson with glandular fever proved too great a handicap for Britain, who entered the final day level at 1-1. Laura Robson lost 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 to Paula Ormaechea in the first of the reverse singles before Maria Irigoyen completed a 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Elena Baltacha, who had been preferred to Johanna Konta despite having played only one match since returning after a nine-month absence through injury.
Robson, who has won only two matches in the six tournaments she has played since the Australian Open, had been an emphatic winner of her first singles rubber against Florencia Molinero on Saturday. In Ormaechea, however, the world No 38 faced a more accomplished opponent. Although 105 places behind her in the world rankings, the Argentine No 1 is an experienced Fed Cup campaigner and a good performer on clay.
While Robson had the bigger ground strokes, the slow surface, which was in Argentina's favour throughout, enabled Ormaechea to stay in many rallies. Going for her shots, Robson made 57 unforced errors and struggled with her serve, hitting nine double faults.
Ormaechea had the better of five successive breaks in the middle of the opening set and went 2-0 up in the second, but Robson recovered well and had the momentum with her when she levelled the match. From 1-1 in the decider, however, Ormaechea took command. Robson saved the first three match points but on the fourth Ormaechea hit a winning backhand pass down the line.
After Konta had lost her singles rubber on Saturday, Murray decided to gamble by replacing her with Baltacha. The former British No 1 had failed to complete her only match in Alabama last week on her return to competition after ankle surgery, but has extensive Fed Cup experience and is a gritty fighter. Argentina also made a change, replacing Florencia Molinero with Irigoyen, who has won only one of five singles rubbers for her country.
Although Baltacha had her chances, she converted only five of 14 break points. The Briton held firm until 3-3 in the first set, then dropped serve three times in a row. Baltacha broke back the first two times but after the third Irigoyen served out for the set.
Baltacha's response could not be faulted as she broke to lead 5-3 in the second set and served out to force a decider. She broke immediately, but did not win another game, her lack of action appearing to catch up with her.
It was a desperately disappointing outcome for Murray's team, who have had the misfortune to be drawn away in their play-off matches for the last two years. They will now have to renew their attempt to win promotion next year to the World Group – in which Britain last competed 20 years ago – via Europe Africa Zone Group One.