It has been Simona Halep’s stated goal to win the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, but Romania was denied by France on Easter Sunday as their semi-final encounter went down to the wire.
Halep’s dream of adding a maiden Fed Cup title to her Roland Garros breakthrough triumph was shattered in the fifth rubber of a cliff-hanger tie in front of 1,000 Romanian fans, who drowned out the larger home support.
The opening day on Saturday ended with the two nations locked at 1-1, the World No 2 having outclassed Kristina Mladenovic, 6-3 6-1, and French No 1 Caroline Garcia, ranked 21, easing to a 6-3 6-3 win over 30th-ranked Mihaela Buzarnescu.
“I have won a Grand Slam, been World No 1 and now this is the next goal,” Halep told fedcup.com after her 8th successive win in the competition, which last saw Romania make the final in 1973.
“It was hard to control my emotions but here in this arena, there are so many Romanians that I felt we were playing at home.
“They were louder than the French and the energy they gave us was amazing.”
The raucous support continued into Easter Sunday as Halep had to fight back from a set down to beat Garcia, 6-7(8) 6-3 6-4, in a marathon match after 2 hours and 57 minutes to give Romania a 2-1 lead and putting her team one win away from reaching the final.
Halep had won 5 of her 6 previous meetings against Garcia, but the reigning Roland Garros champion was greatly challenged by the World No 21 on the clay courts of Rouen in the first match of the day.
Garcia used her fabulous forehand to hang with Halep, blasting 28 of her 40 winners from that side.
Halep, however, claimed 6 of her 8 break points, while Garcia was a less successful 4-of-13 when she had break opportunities, and was undone by 59 unforced errors, which was 26 more than her opponent.
In the first set, Garcia got off to a flying start, completely dominating the opening stages to take a 4-0 lead over the World No 2, but Halep’s groundstroke prowess began to fire and the Romanian pulled all the way back to level at 4-4.
Halep then used strong returns to win a 5th straight game to go up a break for the first time.
Serving for the set, though, she faltered from 30-0 up, double faulting to give Garcia a glimmer of hope in the game, then watching as the Frenchwoman powered shots through the court to lead to a break for 5-5.
Garcia then held for 6-5 with a wily drop-shot and held 2 set points at 6-5 before Halep scratched out a service hold to take it into a tiebreak.
Halep moved to a set point of her own with a forehand winner at 5-5, but aggressive play by Garcia let her win her two service points to lead 7-6 and when the Romanian punched a backhand into the net on Garcia’s third set point, France had a set in the bag.
The second set started with a streak of Halep’s own, racing to a 3-0 lead, but the Garcia forehand resumed its ferocity, and the Frenchwoman levelled the set at 3-3.
Halep placed herself in a prime position again, as a down-the-line backhand by the Romanian finally pierced the exceptional Garcia defence to attain a crucial break for 5-3.
Serving for the second set, Halep was forced to battle out of a 0-30 hole before manoeuvring to 2 set points with winning down-the-line backhands.
Garcia saved both, but a third set point came Halep’s way after a long return by the Frenchwoman, and she converted that chance with a forehand winner down the line.
The players moved into the decider, where Halep was forced to save break points in her first two service games before gritting out holds.
Another tense service game for the Romanian was closed out with two forehand winners as she held for 4-4.
Finally, Halep claimed the initial break of the final set, taking Garcia’s serve for a 5-4 lead with a forehand winner on the sideline on break point.
Garcia’s forehand helped her get to 15-30 at match game, but Halep would not be denied, and blasted through the final three points of the tilt to close out a tremendous victory.
France’s Pauline Parmentier steeled herself in the 4th rubber when she needed to most, and levelled the tie at two matches apiece, with a 6-3 2-6 6-2 victory over Irina-Camelia Begu.
She took the first set without facing a break point, initially claiming the lead by breaking for 3-1, after Begu netted a backhand on the 3rd break point of a lengthy game, and holding onto it throughout.
Begu struck back by taking the second set, breaking for 3-1, and again for a second time as Parmentier suffered a string of double faults, including two in the final game.
Parmentier, however, took the immediate lead in the decider, striking a divine angled forehand to force an error from Begu and claim the Romanian’s opening service game.
The Frenchwoman was pumped as she excitedly galloped through her service games, punctuated with a love hold for 4-2.
Begu was broken for 5-2 after she turned her ankle while down break point when a return winner whizzed past her.
After treatment, Begu returned to the court, but Parmentier remained unfazed and finished off her victory to level the tie at two rubbers apiece in 2 hours and 4 minutes.
The semi-final was decided by the doubles match, where Mladenovic and Garcia came back from one set down to beat Halep and Monica Niculescu, 5-7 6-3 6-4, in a thrilling and tight encounter.
At the start, however, it was the magic of Niculescu which took command.
31-year-old usually held firm at the net and carved her typical wily shots, including a drop-shot return winner to break the French pair for 6-5.
Serving for the set, Niculescu hit a breathtaking lob winner to reach triple set point, and converted her team’s second opportunity with another lob.
The French pair of Garcia and Mladenovic eventually found the footing that brought them to the French Open doubles title in 2016.
An overhead by Garcia put them up 3-1 in the second set, and she fired a crosscourt backhand for a second break and a 5-1 lead.
The French duo gave one break back, but were able to finish off the set with a magnificent Mladenovic volley.
With one set for all the marbles, the tennis got extremely tense.
Both Garcia and Halep had to survive service games in which they faced three break points, en route to a 4-4 deadlock after no breaks had occurred.
Eventually, in that game, the French pair broke through on Halep’s serve, as a Mladenovic return winner brought up break point, where a tired Halep double faulted.
Leading 5-4 in the third set, Garcia served for the tie, and fell behind 15-30 after another zesty Niculescu volley.
Powerful deliveries from Garcia pulled her and her partner through to match point, which Garcia converted with another big serve, concluding the match after 2 hours and 37 minutes of scintillating battle.
Disappointment for Romania, especially a dejected Halep, contrasted to the joy of the French, whose fans positively rocked the stadium.
France will face Australia in the Fed Cup final next November in their bid to win their third Fed Cup title after their triumphs in 1997 and 2003, but they will do so down under without the din of Les Bleu supporters..
The Australian duo of Ashleigh Barty and Sam Stosur guided their country into the final of the Fed Cup for the first time since 1993, after a dramatic final day of their clash with Belarus.
Australia, who last won the team competition back in 1974, was pushed to their limits at the Pat Rafter Arena in Brisbane with the final rubber of the tie also deciding their fate.
After day one, they were held at 1-1 by Belarus, with a team compromising of two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka and World No 10 Aryna Sabalenka.
Barty gave the home favourites an initial 2-1 advantage after she disposed of Sabalenka, 6-2 6-2, a player who she lost to twice during the second half of the 2018 season.
Azarenka then revived Belarus’ chances immediately with an emphatic 6-1 6-1, win over tour veteran Stosur, her first victory in the competition since 2016.
With all to play for, it was the doubles match that separated the two nations.
During a roller coaster encounter, Barty and Stosur prevailed 7-5 3-6 6-2, over their rivals, breaking twice in the decider on route to securing the overall 3-2 victory.
“It’s just super-exciting now to be in the Fed Cup final,” Stosur told fedcup.com afterwards. “All the girls, we work so hard throughout the year, and we really stick together as a team, Fed Cup weeks or not Fed Cup weeks.
“We’ve always got each others back, so to be in the Fed Cup final not I think a great reward for both of us, and we’re going to give it our best shot here in November.”
“It was just an incredible weekend,” Australian Captain Alicia Molik reflected.
“We hadn’t exactly planned for it to come to the doubles, yet we were prepared. We got to that position, and I was really pleased today with both the outputs of Ash – it was phenomenal tennis out there – and Sam gave it her best.
“You can just see the joy in our faces too – winning that doubles rubber, what it means. We’re now in the final. I’m just so proud.”