Great Britain lost the opening rubber of their Davis Cup quarter-final against Italy as James Ward's valiant fight ended in defeat by Fabio Fognini.

Ward battled for three hours and nine minutes in Naples before falling to a 6-4 2-6 6-4 6-1 loss.

The start of the match was delayed by more than two hours because of heavy rain, with water seeping under the covers to leave the clay court in less-than perfect condition.

On paper it was a mismatch, with Fognini ranked 13th - and better than that on clay - while Ward has never been in the top 100 and currently sits 161st.

But he has consistently performed well above his ranking in Davis Cup and his superb win over the United States' Sam Querrey in February was the key to Britain's first World Group victory in 28 years.

It was no surprise that British captain Leon Smith opted for Ward ahead of the higher-ranked Dan Evans given the Querrey result and Ward's liking for clay.

The Londoner made a flying start, winning the first three games as Fognini, a volatile character, became distracted by the state of the court.

But Ward could not cement his advantage as the Italian number one reeled off five games in a row on his way to the opening set.

The British number three responded with another three games at the start of the second and, although Fognini broke back once again, Ward finally took his sixth break point to lead 4-2.

And another break, clinched with a drop shot, gave him the set, after which Fognini took a lengthy medical timeout to have his ribs taped.

The Italian did not look at all comfortable, but he gained a crucial break at the start of the third set.

Ward's big chance came with two break points as Fognini served for the set, but he could not get either of his returns back into play and the Italian ran away with the fourth.

The result made it imperative Andy Murray won the second singles rubber against Andreas Seppi, but Ward's efforts at least meant the Wimbledon champion had more time than he would have expected to recover from a virus.

Murray spent much of Thursday in bed after falling ill on Wednesday night.

Fognini, who branded the court "bad", told the BBC: "It was a really tough match.

"It's a really important point for us. He had nothing to lose. I'm happy because we lead 1-0 and, without playing well, without feeling good, I won a match."