JUDY MURRAY reckons a mixture of hard graft on the court and good fun off it can propel her Great Britain Fed Cup team to the World Group for the first time since 1995.
A strong-looking team, comprising Laura Robson, Heather Watson, Anne Keothavong and debutant Johanna Konta – Paisley's Elena Baltacha is a non-playing member – open their 2013 campaign this morning in Eilat, Israel, with a Europe/Africa Pool B fixture against Bosnia-Herzegovina, before ties with Portugal and Hungary in the following few days.
Should they top the pool and then come through a weekend meeting with the winners of Pool D, they will move into a World Group II play-off in April. Murray believes the omens are good for them to go one better than 12 months ago when they made it through the round-robin stage only to lose 4-1 to Sweden in a play-off. Since then, Watson and Robson have superseded the more experienced members of the squad by ascending to world rankings of 41 and 45 respectively, while the bond in a close-knit squad this week has been bolstered by a board game marathon.
"A big part of our success last year was the fact we had so much fun on and off the court and we have carried that on," said Murray. "We have a lot of fun and it is absolutely crucial that we all enjoy being with each other. We have a great team spirit and quite a good selection of games, on the first night it was girls against the boys in the support staff at Pictionary, then last night it was charades."
While Murray will not name her selections until the last minute, she admits the dynamic within her camp has changed. With Baltacha inactive as she recuperates from an ankle injury – the Scot is targeting a return to the main tour in April – the Fed Cup captain feels the emergence of Watson and Robson in the last 12 months probably makes the Brits favourites to come out of the group, courtesy of a rather favourable draw which has spared them a meeting with the likes of a Polish side including the world No.4 Agnieszka Radwanska. Hungary, featuring Timea Babos and Greta Arn, are expected to be the closest opposition on paper, but Bosnia-Herzegovina are virtual unknowns and Portugal's No.1 player Maria Joao Koehler is not thought to have travelled.
"Elena [Baltacha] and Annie [Keothavong] headed up the singles last year and did an unbelievable job to get us out of the group," said Murray. "But the younger members of the squad – Laura and Heather – have had a very exciting 12 months, pushing their ranking towards the top 40, which is a fabulous achievement. It means there is a slightly different dynamic in the team with regards the singles rankings. It puts us in a very strong position, the team is fighting fit and I think we are ready to fight for a place in the World Group. On paper you would probably say we are the favourites so we just have to live up to that.
"The draw has probably been quite kind to us. There are a number of teams we had hoped to avoid and we have avoided them, and not just in the pool phase. With the format being just two singles and one doubles, if you come up against a team with a very strong No.1 like Poland it is a very hard obstacle to overcome."
Even conditions at the Municipal Club in Eilat seem to be lending a helping hand. Unlike last year, all of Britain's matches are all slated to take place in the morning, when the weather conditions are decidedly more favourable.
"The conditions are quite different in the morning compared to the afternoon," said Murray. "In the morning it is relatively calm and warm. Later in the afternoon is when the wind gets up a little bit; it's very strong between 5pm and 6pm and it can also get cold. This way, we can get our matches out of the way and then study video footage of our next day's opponents. It will suit us better than last year when we were starting at 5pm and not getting back to the hotel until late. Also having to play in cold and windy conditions was not ideal."