By Martyn Herman
MADRID (Reuters) - Hosts Spain and Australia made smooth progress to join Canada in the last eight of the Davis Cup Finals but elsewhere in La Caja Magica on Wednesday it proved a more trying day for players, organisers and fans.
World number one Rafa Nadal sealed top spot in Group B for Spain as he crushed Croatia's Borna Gojo 6-4 6-3 to give his side an unassailable 2-0 lead after Roberto Bautista Agut had beaten Nikola Mektic 6-1 6-3.
It ended a woeful few days for reigning champions Croatia, who sacked captain Zeljko Krajan days before the finals and were without injured talisman Marin Cilic. They left with two losses.
Australia set up a quarter-final against Canada on Thursday with victory over Belgium but retired from the dead doubles rubber after playing one game in another blow for the revamped tournament's credibility. [L8N281056]
With the rubber having commenced after midnight, Australia captain Lleyton Hewitt said it was an "easy decision" to retire and that doubles player John Peers needed to rest a sore elbow.
But it was a bad look for organisers a day after the Canadians forfeited their doubles rubber against the United States, drawing criticism from rival teams.
After Tuesday's action wrapped up at almost 2 a.m. (0100 GMT), Wednesday's final match between the United States and Italy limped to a finish just after 4 a.m. on Thursday morning.
Sam Querrey and Jack Sock overhauled Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini 6-7(4) 7-6(2) 6-4 to seal a 2-1 win and second place in Group F for the United States.
But in the end it was all purely for pride, with both teams knocked out.
Nick Kyrgios earlier gave Australia a flying start, blasting 22 aces in beating Steve Darcis 6-2 7-6(9), before Alex de Minaur defeated David Goffin 6-0 7-6(4) to eliminate Belgium.
Britain endured a torrid opening day of their campaign as they scraped past the Netherlands 2-1 in a Group E tie that spanned nearly nine hours on Court 3.
What Andy Murray would have done for a straightforward day.
Britain's three-time Grand Slam champion returned to Davis Cup action for the first time since 2016 but almost came unstuck against 179th-ranked Tallon Griekspoor, clawing back a 1-4 deficit in the deciding set to win 6-7(7) 6-4 7-6(5).
The 32-year-old Murray, who returned from hip surgery in June, looked spent at the end of a brutal match as he took his record in Davis Cup singles rubbers to 31-3.
The Dutch hit back as Robin Haase recovered from a set down to beat Dan Evans but Britain emerged victorious as Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski beat Wesley Koolhof and Jean-Julien Rojer 6-4 7-6(6), saving two set points in the second set.
Britain will face Kazakhstan on Thursday with the winners moving through to the quarter-finals. Captain Leon Smith may rest Murray and might even need a breather himself.
"It's one of the longest days I've had sitting in the chair," Smith, in charge in 2015 when Murray fired Britain to the title, said. "It's been another day of incredible drama."
Inevitably after such a radical reform of the 119-year-old team event there have been glitches but the third day of competition produced some electric atmospheres.
None more so than Britain's tie with the Netherlands with Murray cheered on by hundreds of fans waving Union Jacks.
He needed them too in a nerve-jangling final set, admitting afterwards that he was lucky to beat the 23-year-old Griekspoor.
"I am relieved right now," the former world number one said. "I didn't deserve to win that match."
Novak Djokovic, who Nadal pipped to the year-end top ranking, helped get Serbia up and running with an easy win over Yoshihito Nishioka as they beat Japan 3-0 in Group A.
(Additional reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Ken Ferris/Pritha Sarkar/Peter Rutherford)