Barty Unstoppable As Australia Advances Over Team USA

Captain Alicia Molik, Kimberly Birrell, Astra Sharma, Daria Gavrilova, Priscilla Hon and Ashleigh Barty with Billie Jean King (photo: ITF/Susan Mullane)

WASHINGTON, February 11, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

Ashleigh Barty was unstoppable for Australia. Her three points in three rubbers over the weekend lifted the visiting Aussies to a 3-2 victory over the United States and into the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinals. On Sunday, the Australian No. 1 won twice – in both singles and doubles – to lift her country into the semifinal round for the first time since 2014.

“When you’re playing with Australia written on your back, wearing the green and gold, it’s the best feeling, regardless if you’re home or away,” said Barty after clinching the tie for Australia. Her win in Saturday’s first rubber set the tone for Australia for the rest of the tie. “These are the moments you remember for the rest of your life. You play a million matches on tour, but the best memories come from these Fed Cup weeks.”

The 18-time Fed Cup champion Americans received enthusiastic support and backing from the sellout crowd inside U.S. Cellular Arena in Asheville, North Carolina. They rallied behind the 2018 Fed Cup finalists following Barty’s suprisingly easy 6-4, 6-1 win against No. 17 Madison Keys that lasted only 66 minutes and put Australia ahead 2-1.

The World No. 13 Barty overcame a double service break early in the first set, which put her behind 0-3, by breaking Keys four times. Then, she broke the American No. 1 three more times in the final set. Although Barty hit just seven winners, she kept her unforced errors down to a respectable 13 while forcing Keys into 31 hitting mistakes and 24 additional unforced errors. She outpointed Keys 67-45.

Following Barty’s 11th consecutive Fed Cup win, U.S. team captain Kathy Rinaldi inserted Australian Open semifinalist Danielle Collins into the Team USA lineup in the fourth rubber in place of Sofia Kenin, who had lost to Barty on Saturday. The No. 23 Collins lifted her team’s and the crowd’s spirits with a crucial 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 win over No. 47 Daria Gavrilova, who substituted for No. 157 Kimberly Birrell.

With the tie even at 2-all, it came down to a deciding fifth rubber doubles, in which the reigning U.S. Open champion Barty and Priscilla Hon in her Fed Cup debut, replacing Gavrilova, were clutch in beating Collins and Nicole Melichar, 6-4, 7-5. After being broken in her two previous service games, Hon held her serve at love as she and Barty won 12 of the final 14 points in the rubber to advance Australia against Belarus. The Aussies broke Collins’ serve in the 11th game of the final set on a second break-point opportunity to push ahead 6-5 and never looked back.

“Ashleigh, she’s a good all-around player. She serves well, returns well, volleys well,” said Melichar. “There aren’t too many holes in her game. So, that’s why she’s been successful in both singles and doubles.”

At Team USA’s post-match press conference, Rinaldi defended her decision to keep Collins in the American doubles lineup after enduring a one hour and 57 minute singles rubber. “We saw her fight. We wanted to ride that momentum,” she said. “We just saw how well she was striking that ball, so we went with her.

“I can’t ask for any more than what these girls gave this week and today. They left it all out on the court. That’s all a captain can ask for.”

Next, the United States will play in the World Group playoffs in April. A win will return Team USA to the World Group next year, while a loss would relegate them to World Group II.

Meanwhile, the Australians, who are a seven-time Fed Cup champion but whose last title came in 1974, will be a semifinal host to Belarus in April. “It’s been a long time between drinks, hasn’t it?” said Australian team captain Alicia Molik in a celebratory mood. “I’m happy because this is such a youthful team.”

Indeed, at age 24, Gavrilova is the oldest player in Australia’s lineup. Barty is 22 and Hon and Birrell are both 20. Additionally, fifth member Astra Sharma, who didn’t play against the United States, is only 23.

“I’m incredibly proud,” said Molik. “The win, beating the USA, winning this tie, put that aside. I think what I’m proud of is not just their efforts but their commitment. Every player here has put their hand up incredibly early to play Fed Cup for Australia.”

Fed Cup notes

• With Australia’s victory, it meant that all four first-round away teams – Australia, Belarus, France and Romania – won to advance to April’s World Group semifinals.

• The 2019 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group and World Group II playoffs draw will be streamed live from the ITF headquarters in London beginning at 12:00 GMT on Tuesday, Feb. 12.