Fed Cup | Australia first into final
It came down to the wire in Brisbane, when Australia pipped Belarus at the post to secure its spot in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas final.
Who will host the final remains to be seen, as France does battle with Romania in Europe, but it was the doubles rubber that determined the outcome down under.
Just as the battle of the top-tenners gave Australia the early advantage over Belarus on the second day of the semi-final, so it was that the duel between the former Grand Slam champions that levelled the tie at 2-2.
All four singles players were in action in the deciding rubber, and Australian captain Alicia Molik’s decision to stick with Sam Stosur for both of Sunday’s matches was a brave one following her earlier demolition at the hands of Victoria Azarenka, but the 35-year-old recovered remarkably.
Blown away by Azarenka earlier in the day – Stosur only held serve once all match – the veteran reset to improve her perfect Fed Cup doubles record to 8-0 thanks to some quick hands and assured court craft under immense pressure.
The former US Open champion produced some vintage moments in back-to-back points from 15-30 down to hold and secure a quality first set.
Momentum swung when they missed a chance to break Azarenka’s serve at 3-3, with Stosur immediately broken and Aryna Sabalenka forcing a decider.
Both countries then produced the goods in a series of scintillating third-set rallies. Australia grabbed the first break and Ash Barty held firm for a 4-1 lead.
Stosur then held to love to get the hosts within one game and hit the winning volley on their 3rd match point in the next game to clinch the tie, 7-5 3-6 6-2.
‘‘I could not have picked two more perfect athletes to contest this final rubber,’’ Molik said.‘‘I’m just so proud of my team.’’
Earlier in the day, Barty produced her most commanding tennis to beat power-hitting Sabalenka and hand Australia a 2-1 lead.
The World No 9 breezed past a player ranked one place below her, 6-2 6-2, to leave her country in a prime position to make their first final since 1993, with either France or Romania awaiting them.
Belarus were bidding to reach the final for the second time in three attempts, after being beaten by the United States in 2017.
“I think it was really important for me to get out of a few tricky service games. A really clean match today. I stuck to my game plan well and was able to execute under pressure,” said Barty. “Certainly nice to return [serve] so well.”
Barty is in red-hot form after bursting into the top 10 by winning the Miami Open last month and is now on a 13-match Fed Cup winning streak.
Sabalenka had a 2-1 edge in career meetings coming into the tie, but Barty was the more composed, with the Belarussian’s serve letting her down.
The ice-cool Australian got the crucial break in 5th game, when Sabalenka fired down 4 double faults, including one on break point.
The serving wobbles continued, and Barty exploited the weakness with her all-court play as she broke again to pull 5-2 clear when Sabalenka hit a forehand into the net.
She served out to love and took the set on an ace.
A tight second set also went with serve until the 5th game and, in a mirror image of the first, Barty again broke when Sabalenka double faulted as the pressure mounted.
She broke again for a 5-2 lead as Sabalenka’s error count mounted, before serving out for the match, again with an ace.
“I think we had a really clear plan today,’’ said Barty.
“We were able to have a look at a few different things that Sam was able to expose yesterday, and I was able to take advantage of it today. I thought it was really clean – particularly on return games, I was able to build pressure pretty quickly.
“It was a bit of a wrestle early in both sets. I think it was important for me to hang with her physically, and try and continue to build pressure.
“I had opportunities in most games, and she had a few opportunities in my service games and was able to shut it down pretty quickly with some good serving.
“It was important for me to get out of the 2-1 service game in both sets.
“Probably over the last nine matches, through Miami and the last two days here has been really, really solid tennis.
“Different circumstances, different players, and different situations – I feel like I’ve been able to handle it really well, go about my tennis the right way and ultimately play some of my best stuff.’’
It came down to Victoria Azarenka to save Belarus’ chances, and the two-time Grand Slam champion and former World No 1 delivered by downing Stosur with the loss of just two games to send the semi-final into a deciding doubles rubber.
Stosur, who was preferred ahead of the higher-ranked Daria Gavrilova, was simply blown away when given a chance to seal the tie in a 6-1 6-1 singles loss to former World No. 1 Azarenka.
“It was either we were going to stay and fight for another match or we were going to go home, so I was really focused,” Azarenka said on-court after the match.
“I thought that I played great tennis and I executed well. It’s a pleasure playing here, it’s a pleasure playing for my country, and I’m looking forward to a next match.
“The pressure is always there, and I think it’s good because those are the situations you want to be in.
“A year ago, when I lost the match [yesterday], I wouldn’t be talking to anybody and I would be sad, but yesterday [after losing to Ashleigh Barty], I took a different approach.
“I fell in love with the journey…and what I can do better today, so I was leaving the court with a smile and I came back with a smile.”
In the other semi-final, played on a different continent and time zone, France and Romania were poised at 1-1 after Saturday’s action in Rouen.
Romanian fans almost equalled the French and the noise was deafening as Simona Halep defeated Kristina Mladenovic, 6-3 6-1, to put her country ahead.
Caroline Garcia got the home crowd baying their approval with a far more straightforward 6-3 6-3 victory over Mihaela Buzarnescu, to leave the tie evenly balanced.
French captain Julien Benneteau nominated Mladenovic as his No 2 singles player because she had the best chance to beat Halep but the Romanian was in no mood to be defeated by anyone, although the scoreline concealed a fight lasting an hour and 40 minutes.
It was her 8th straight victory in Fed Cup singles, amid an atmosphere which can only be described as utterly stonking.
In a riveting 55-minute opening set, Halep appeared entirely at home as she poured the pressure on her gritty opponent, racking up handfuls of break points right from the off, until Mladenovic yielded for 2-3.
The Frenchwoman was going for the lines, and while that naturally risked error, she was also doing damage.
A power forehand skidded off the indoor clay past the Roland Garros champion to put the set back on serve, but a game later the advantage was restored.
It took 14 minutes and 5 deuces, but a mighty Halep backhand down the line sealed it, and the Romanian roaring.
Mladenovic spirit never flagged, but Halep’s eagerness to shoulder the burden of expectation for her nation is fearsome.
France dug deep, only to reveal the mental strain when she double-faulted for 1-3, and from there her vulnerability only increased.
Halep has stated plainly that it is her intention to capture the Fed Cup in 2019.
“Why this year particularly?” she said, in answer to FedCup.com’s question.
“I’ve won a Grand Slam, I’ve been No 1 in the world, and now the next goal is this. It’s an important moment.
“I want to give everything I can to do it. I don’t know if it’s harder to be the one playing the match, or sitting court-side watching my team-mates. It’s so difficult to control my emotions wherever I am.
“But here in this arena, there are so many Romanians that I felt like we were at home.
“They were louder than the French. I didn’t expect so many to make the journey.
“It’s a big effort for them to come to watch us, and the energy the send us by being here is amazing. I want to thank them so much. We want to win it for them.”
Romanian captain Florin Segarceanu must have hoped Garcia’s joust with left-handed Mihaela Buzarnescu might have been much closer, given their respective ranking of 21 and 29.
Buzarnescu debuted in 2006, but has played for her nation only sporadically, and it is partly for that reason that she is without a singles win in the competition since 2012.
Garcia came in to this one on a four-strong winning streak, knowing that a 0-2 deficit at the end of this first day would be a very big mountain to climb.
Both players can be nervous customers, but Garcia proved the more assured in the most pivotal moments.
Having practised with the Romanian several times this year, Garcia reaped the whirlwind, reading her opponent’s potentially tricky forehand to good effect at the business end of the first set.
They traded breaks at the start of the second, but again Garcia took control, and no amount of the Romanian throng bellowing ‘Miki! Miki!’ could alter the outcome, 6-3 6-3.
Sunday may bring no end of aural complications for the crowd, should Kiki Mladenovic and Miki Buzarnescu face one another in the fourth rubber, but Segarceanu might opt for Irina-Camelia Begu instead, armed with the confidence that a five-match Fed Cup winning streak creates.
If this semi-final goes all the way, Begu will be in action again in the doubles, as indeed will Mladenovic, according to Benneteau’s original plans.
After Garcia’s victory, the French captain was mysterious about his thinking for day two here.
“There is no plan,” he said opaquely. “I have a lot of people to talk to. I really don’t know what I will do yet. I will take some time to think and talk with my colleagues. But it’s not a group decision. It is my call. I will decide.”
Garcia credited Benneteau’s courtside input as key to her win over Buzarnescu, and he will need to find more of the same on Sunday when she meets Halep in the third rubber – she trails the Romanian 1-5 in their career meetings.
“Yes, I hope to help her in the same way in that one,” said Benneteau. “It’s how we talk before the match, and then during the match if she needs to focus on something different, to remind her of what works for her.”
Regardless of the outcome, this tie will be completed in the raucous atmosphere of the Kindarena, when only one nation can emerge as the biggest noise to confront Australia in November’s Fed Cup final.