NAPLES, ITALY: Italy could not have been much more hospitable towards Great Britain ahead of their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Davis Cup World Group quarterfinal in Naples.
Opposite the side of the picturesque seaside venue on which the grandstand seats are coloured in the colours of the Italian flag, they have evened the balance by colouring the seats red, white and blue to display the Union Jack flag.
That will likely be where the generosity ends. A tumultuous battle is expected on court as both sides aim to clinch a long-awaited place in the last four – Italy last reached the Davis Cup semifinals in 1998, while you have to go back to 1981 to find the last time Britain got so far.
As much as it is a team competition, the visitors’ chances of emulating that performance 33 years ago lie in the hands of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. The British No. 1 was absent for the draw on Thursday due to a stomach bug, but GB captain Leon Smith is hopeful that he will manage to shake it off in time for his match against Andreas Seppi on Friday, which follows the opening rubber between Fabio Fognini and James Ward.
"Andy’s got some sort of virus which has made him feel pretty poorly over the last 24 hours in particular," said Smith. "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 so looks like he will be OK."
Murray could be given more time to recover if the forecast thunderstorms for the opening day come to fruition. When that match does get underway, despite feeling poorly, Murray is heavy favourite against world No. 34 Seppi, who he has beaten five times in six meetings, including a victory on the clay of Rome back in 2010.
Murray is no stranger to the Tennis Club Napoli, although he didn’t realise it until he arrived here when the recollections of a defeat in qualifying for a Challenger here in March 2005 came flooding back. He was 17, and lost to Julio Silva – now a 34-year-old ranked No. 898.
He returns as a very different prospect. Despite a fall in the rankings this week to No. 8, his lowest position since August 2008, and the fact that clay is not his preferred surface, the two-time Grand Slam champion is still the man to beat this weekend
"It’s going to be a very difficult match," said Seppi. "He’s a great player. The last matches I played against him, I always lost so I have to do better. I have to try and play my best game, very aggressive and hopefully I can beat him."
There could not be many better showmen than Fognini to open the tie in front of a 6,000-strong crowd. But despite his streaky temperament and antics, he is currently in the best form of his life, sitting at a career-high ranking of No. 13, after winning all three of his ATP career singles titles on clay within the past nine months.
The 26-year-old arrived in Naples, following a quarterfinal defeat to Rafael Nadal in Miami, with a left quad muscle injury but looks fine to take to the court for a match which he will be highly fancied to take against James Ward, who is ranked 148 places lower.
"I feel great," said Fognini. "I was a little bit tired, felt some pain in the legs, but now I feel much better. I have had more than one week to recover and hopefully Friday is going to go the right way."
Italy captain Corrado Barazzutti was ironically the man who won the deciding fifth rubber when the two teams last played each other in a World Group first round match in 1984 in Telford, Great Britain. Here in Naples this weekend, he has the chance to lead his side to the last four, which will be a momentous achievement after the struggles they have had since last reaching the final 16 years ago.
"The match is very balanced," said Barazzutti. "We play on clay courts, which is not the surface that maybe Great Britain like more. Andy Murray is the Wimbledon champion and he is one of the best players in the world so it will be a tough match. We need to play well."
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Fabio Fognini (ITA) v James Ward (GBR)
R2: Andreas Seppi (ITA) v Andy Murray (GBR)
R3: Simone Bolelli/Paolo Lorenzi (ITA) v Colin Fleming/Ross Hutchins (GBR)
R4: Fabio Fognini (ITA) v Andy Murray (GBR)
R5: Andreas Seppi (ITA) v James Ward (GBR)
Captain Corrado Barazzutti (ITA) - 03/04/2014
Fabio Fognini (ITA) - 03/04/2014
Andreas Seppi (ITA) - 03/04/2014
Captain Leon Smith (GBR) - 03/04/14
James Ward (GBR) - 03/04/2014
Colin Fleming/Ross Hutchins (GBR) - 03/04/2014