PERTH, November 11, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Australia came oh so close to winning its first Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Final title in 45 years on Sunday afternoon in Perth. Instead, the Aussie green and gold that was worn so proudly and fiercely by Ashleigh Barty and Samantha Stosur came up one decisive rubber short against France, which won the title for the third time overall and first time since 2003.
The 3-2 final score that favored the emboldened French left Australia with its ninth consecutive loss in a Fed Cup Final going all the way back to 1975. France was guided by first-year team captain Julien Benneteau – and its team included the brilliant, never-say-die doubles combo of Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia. After producing a dramatic 6-4, 6-3 victory over Barty and Stosur, which the pair won on their third championship-point opportunity, they draped themselves along with their teammates in their nation’s beloved Tricolour flag and sang “La Marseillaise” with gusto like they never had before, filled with happy tears welling in their eyes.
For Garcia, it was redemption after she suffered a humiliating defeat against Barty – not winning a single game – on the first day of the tie. Meanwhile, the defeated Aussies looked visibly crushed after playing in their first Fed Cup Final in 26 years and witnessed by the grand dame of Aussie women’s tennis, Margaret Court, and other greats from yesteryear.
“There’s been probably not too many days where this moment wouldn’t have popped into my head over the last six months since (the semifinal win in) Brisbane,” Stosur admitted after the tie once the pomp and ceremony feting France had ended.
“But all four players on the court … both teams, wanted it badly. It’s unfortunate that we’re on the wrong end of it tonight, but it’s certainly a moment we wish wasn’t quite this way.”
Indeed, as Australia’s team captain Alicia Molik told media after the trophy ceremony: “We gave everything today. We fell just a fraction short.”
No happy tears for Australia, for sure. Only tears of sorrow.
“I don’t regret any step of the way. We’ve had to come together for such a long period of time now,” Molik continued. “We’re such a close-knit team. We’ve faced so much adversity. We’ve done that for the last few years and this year particularly in Asheville and Brisbane. We were up against it for so much of the time.
“Even today, we were up against it and fought our way back to put ourselves into the position we want to be in, quite frankly, with the last rubber resting on the doubles.
“But credit to France and gee whiz, Kiki Mladenovic showed her true colors today. I think she carried all of the French team on her shoulders.”
Molik gave due props to the inspired Mladenovic, who won all three rubbers (two singles and one doubles) she played in during the two-day competition at the packed and loud RAC Arena. “It was an unbelievable display. She sort of took it out of our hands.”
Indeed, Mladenovic began Day 1 of the Aussie-French tie with a remarkable 6-1, 6-1 breadstick win over a nervous Ajla Tomljanovic, who was making her Fed Cup debut for Australia. Then, Barty came to the rescue and double-bagelled Garcia, 6-0, 6-0, that seemed to shift the momentum in Australia’s favor going into Day 2.
Inspired Mladenovic steps up huge
However, when Sunday came, it was an inspired Mladenovic who stepped up huge and came to her nation’s rescue. Over the course of two hours and 32 minutes, the French No. 1 kept Barty off balance and overcame some lapses that left the outcome in doubt. Mladenovic came on strong at the end and captured a satisfying 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1) win over the World No. 1. After she was broken twice in the opening set, Mladenovic fought off a break point at 3-4 in the second set that almost gave Barty a chance to serve for a straight-set win. Then, she rallied after squandering a 3-1 lead in the final set and ultimately closed out her rewarding victory against Barty by taking command of the tie break, winning seven of the eight points. Mladenovic outpointed Barty 103-98 and took advantage of the Aussie’s 47 unforced errors.
The loss ended Barty’s 15-match Fed Cup winning streak, which dated back to February 2017. She had been unbeatable during Australia’s first-round win over the United States in Asheville, N.C., and in its semifinal victory against Belarus in Brisbane.
“We kept on fighting every single point – that’s the way I love to play my tennis,” Mladenovic said on court after her win lifted France into a 2-1 lead.
“Ash is World No. 1, she’s just a huge champion. I lost the first set but then it was about details and at this level when you play the World No. 1 you can’t give away opportunities.
“I just kept believing because I felt I was out there fighting and giving a hard battle and I’m just so proud how I keep pushing and obviously won at the end.”
Later, as Mladenovic explained during France’s team press conference: “It’s been a long journey – it’s been a dream of a kid. I gave so much personally for this achievement in my career. It’s something I wanted – you know, it was on the bucket list,” she said.
“And to be in Australia, to face such a strong team with the World No. 1 and to have this thriller match with her, 7-6 in the third, I can’t believe. … I still don’t really realize what happened. And to lift that trophy, it’s an unforgettable moment.”
No doubt, Barty gave it her all against Mladenovic. While the final result wasn’t what the usually affable Aussie had hoped for, she symbolically tipped her cap and expressed mutual respect for Mladenovic.
“I came back from a break down twice in the third set and Kiki just played a more aggressive tiebreak so I think from my point of view I fought as hard as I could,” Barty told media during Australia’s team press conference.
“I hope that I did my team proud. I hope that I did all Australians proud because I fought with everything I had left.
“Probably give me half a dozen forehands back again, that I’d love to try and hit again or do something different with, and maybe I’m sitting here with a different result.”
Later, Tomljanovic squared the tie at 2-2 with her win over Pauline Parmentier, who was inserted to replace Garcia. “I’m really glad I got a second chance and that I got a win,” she said after her one hour and 32 minute victory.
Decisive doubles settles the tie
Finally, it came down to the doubles rubber to decide it all. After a slow start, Garcia and Mladenovic rebounded to win the first set by hitting winners from all over the court – from the baseline and at the net. The French duo combined brilliantly like they did when they won the Roland Garros doubles in 2016 to surge ahead 3-0 in the second set and, soon, clinched victory over Barty and Stosur in straight sets. It lasted one hour and 16 minutes. Then, the celebration was on and there was a giddy feeling all over RAC Arena: down on the court, where Garcia and Mladenovic were at the bottom of a celebratory scrum with their teammates and team captain piled about them, and in the stands, where a contingent of loud and proud, blue-clad French fans cheered on their heroines.
“I wanted to win 3-0, but it was meant to be, the scenario, to be at 2-2 and a decisive doubles,” Garcia said during her team’s press conference. “I won so many decisive doubles in our Fed Cup career with Kristina, and it was such an amazing experience once again. I think we learned from the experience we had in the past – we were ready for everything and wanted to play our best tennis, and that’s what we did, I think.”
Benneteau, arguably the happiest guy in the world, summed up his feelings after winning his first Fed Cup Final title in a single word: “Proud.” Then he added to his thought: “I dreamt about that at the beginning of the year, and then it comes true. It’s awesome.
“I knew that if all five were together, they would be able to accomplish great things. It was my main goal since the beginning of the year – I told them, and they agreed with that. Then it’s their call, their decision to be here, 100 percent dedicated to the French team for one goal at the end: lift the Fed Cup. And it happened. I’m so proud of them.”