Smith salutes Murray efforts
5:17pm Monday 7th April 2014 in © Press Association 2014
Leon Smith believes Andy Murray can be hugely proud of his efforts in Great Britain's Davis Cup defeat by Italy.
The British team headed home from Naples on Monday no doubt accompanied by the nagging feeling of what might have been.
Britain went into the tie as underdogs, but led 2-1 after Saturday's doubles, bringing the tantalising prospect of a home semi-final against Switzerland in September into focus.
But, while Switzerland recovered from 2-1 down to defeat Kazakhstan, Britain saw the same lead slip away in straight-sets defeats for Murray and James Ward.
Murray was bidding for a third victory in two days after finishing off a delayed singles win over Andreas Seppi on Saturday before teaming up with Colin Fleming for the doubles.
But in the end completing the job against Fabio Fognini, one of the very best players in the world on clay, proved a step too far.
Captain Smith told daviscup.com: " Certainly Fabio played well, but it was a big ask for Andy physically to keep going after playing so much tennis over the tie.
"He was a bit poorly before it, which didn't help. He's put everything on the line and he should be very proud of himself. He clearly has put the team first, again, and fought hard for his country."
Like Murray, Fognini won two rubbers, but, unlike the Wimbledon champion, the Italian had significant back-up in the form of world number 34 Seppi.
Although the likes of Ward and Dan Evans have performed brilliantly in helping Britain make the quarter-finals for the first time in 28 years, expecting them to win rubbers in the World Group is a huge ask.
Evans is ranked 130th and Ward 162nd and, even though Britain have good options in doubles, playing Murray in all three rubbers remains the best chance of victory.
In the last three ties - a World Group play-off against Croatia and clashes against the USA and Italy - Ward's brilliant singles victory over America's Sam Querrey is the only rubber Britain have won that did not involve Murray.
The Scot was keen to talk up his team-mates, saying on BBC Radio Five Live: " The guys did exceptionally well over the last couple of years. You can see now that all of them play above their normal level.
"James Ward has played some great tennis, Dan Evans has had some huge results and the guys that have stepped in for the doubles, too, have had some very good wins and dealt with tough situations and tough atmospheres very well."
Former British Davis Cup player Jamie Baker, though, believes the team are too reliant on Murray.
He said: "The team have done incredibly well to even have that opportunity, but coming down to the fifth rubber it still shows how big the gap is between Andy and the rest of the team.
"Seppi was battling his nerves the whole time and, if James Ward or somebody was just a little bit better and was a bit more of a consistent performer week in, week out, that would have been a genuine chance to win."
Although seeing Italy take on Switzerland in September will be painful for the British team, they can be immensely satisfied that, unlike Spain, Serbia and the United States, they have already guaranteed their place in the elite 16-team World Group for 2015.
That was assured when Britain beat the US in San Diego in February and Smith's main hope for September's draw will be a home tie.
He will also be looking for Evans and Ward to make a concerted challenge for the top 100 and teenager Kyle Edmund to continue his rise.
Asked what he had learned from the last two ties, Smith said: "T hat we deserve to be here.
"We are a World Group team now and the job is to make sure 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."