NAPLES, ITALY: Fabio Fognini was the architect of a stunning Italian comeback as the hosts won all six sets on the final day to defeat Great Britain 3-2 and book a place in the semifinals of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas for the first time since 1998.
Fognini produced a masterful performance in front of a raucous home crowd to beat world No. 8 Andy Murray 63 63 64 in two hours and 19 minutes, before Andreas Seppi clinched the tie in the fifth and decisive rubber with a 64 63 64 win against James Ward.
Italy now progess to a last-four encounter away to Switzerland, a tie which captain Corrado Barazzutti will relish after the struggles his side have had since last reaching the final 16 years ago.
“We have waited for a long time to go into the semifinals,” said Barazzutti. “We are very satisfied for that.
“This is really a great victory. We started the day with two difficult matches. My players played two great matches. It’s difficult to believe that we won six sets.”
Fognini currently sits at a career-high world ranking of No. 13 after winning all three of his titles on clay within the last nine months and he showed why he is at his best on a clay court as he inflicted Murray’s first Davis Cup singles defeat since 2005 to break the Briton’s streak of 19 consecutive singles wins in the competition.
Murray made a strong start as he opened with a break and went on to take a 3-1 lead, which had Fognini immediately gesticulating. As a group of British fans chanted towards him and got under his skin, the Italian No. 1 made a gesture in return, for which he received a talking to from umpire Pascal Maria.
Fognini settled and broke back as the home crowd began to turn the heat on Murray, with the British No. 1 also complaining to Maria about the mutterings coming from Barazzutti on the bench during points. Under pressure as he served at 3-4, Murray hit a double fault on break point down and Fognini completed a run of five consecutive games to serve out the set.
Fognini was inspired at this point, proving to be somewhat of a wall at the back of the court as Murray struggled to hit through the strong defence. Although Murray held firm on serve in the early stages of the second set, Fognini broke twice to take a two-set lead as Murray misfired with his groundstrokes.
Murray showed some signs of tiredness towards the end and as he served to stay in the match at 4-5 in the third set, Fognini pounced to earn three match points at 0-40. Murray could only save two as he tamely netted with the forehand to give Fognini has twelfth straight Davis Cup clay-court singles rubber win, this one undoubtedly being the Italian’s sweetest as he revealed after that he was sick three times during the match.
“Of course I suffered on all three days,” said Fognini. “I think the first day was the worst one because I was not feeling really good. Also yesterday during the doubles I started to feel something after two sets and at the end I think we were a little bit unlucky.
“I was really angry after the match and during the night, but this morning I woke up and said ‘OK, let’s go, put your face in the court like always’ and I was right today.
“I played my best tennis. It was really tough. I know Andy and it’s always difficult playing against him.”
Murray was understandably disappointed but was gracious in his post-match analysis. “He played very well, that’s for sure,” said Murray. “He’s a very good player, especially on this surface. I knew it was going to be a tough one and I wasn’t quite able to play well enough.”
World No. 34 Seppi emerged onto court for the deciding rubber as the clear favourite, ranked 127 places above Ward, although the British No. 2 had produced some of his best tennis in the competition in the past with victories over higher-ranked opponents including Sam Querrey and Dmitry Tursunov.
Both players failed to stamp their authority on serve in the first set with a total of six breaks in the opening nine games before a rain delay of around 25 minutes. Ward returned to the court with the task of serving to stay in the set at 4-5 and failed as he made three successive forehand errors to gift Seppi a one set lead.
Ward had a chance to break for 3-2 in the second set but, not for the first time, the net cord worked in the hosts’ favour as a Seppi forehand dribbled over. The Italian No. 2 went on to break in the following game as Ward put a low backhand volley into the net and later clinched the set with a drop shot which Ward could not chase down.
Ward tried to gee up the downbeat travelling support after holding a lengthy game at the start of the third set but he did not give them much more to shout about. Seppi may have showed a few nerves as the finish line approached but Ward could not capitalise as Seppi served out the tie at the first time of asking.
“I think I was for sure more nervous than a match in a normal tournament,” said Seppi. “Here you are playing for your team, for Italy, not just for yourself, so you have a lot of responsibility.
“It was not easy, especially the beginning and the end also to close out the match. I played a very good last game and it was good to close it out in three sets.”
The British camp, although gutted to have let slip a 2-1 lead going into the final day, can at least comfort themselves with the fact that they are guaranteed a spot in September’s draw for the 2015 World Group after their first-round victory away to USA in January.
“We deserve to be here,” said British captain Leon Smith. “We are a World Group team now and the job is to make sure that the players and staff keep improving so that when we get to the 2015 campaign, we can hit the ground running and keep trying to build on this.
“Hopefully we can get a home tie in next year’s draw because that’s three tough ones away on clay now. It would be great to get a home tie so that we can really fill a big arena to give this team that home advantage.”
Andreas Seppi (ITA) - 06/04/2014
Fabio Fognini (ITA) - 06/04/2014
Captain Corrado Barazzutti (ITA) - 06/04/2014
Andy Murray (GBR) - 06/04/2014
Captain Leon Smith (GBR) - 06/04/2014
James Ward (GBR) - 06/04/2014