World No 1 Ash Barty made a hasty return to Australia after claiming the year-end ranking and the WTA Finals and, with it, a record $4.42 million in prize, and immediately got down to practising with her teammates ahead of the Fed Cup final in Perth, where they will meet France over the weekend.
We can’t wait of the weekend. It’s starting to warm up and that’s pretty natural for summer in Australia – I think it will really suit us. Ashleigh Barty
Barty & Sam Stosur combined for a doubles workout against Priscilla Hon & Astra Sharma, while Stosur and Ajla Tomljanovic battled it out during singles practice.
This all unfolded in the sunny surrounds of Perth’s RAC Arena, which Australia’s Fed Cup Captain Alicia Molik said suited the team enormously, for a blockbuster tie against a formidable French squad.
“It’s a really beautiful stadium … having the roof open too, the warmer weather, it’s something we’re familiar with, we like, and I know all of the players have really enjoyed the stadium and also the surface, and we’re just really hitting our groove,” Molik said.
“We can’t wait of the weekend. It’s starting to warm up and that’s pretty natural for summer in Australia – I think it will really suit us.”
France might be on Australian soil as they attempt to win a third Fed Cup crown in Perth, but they feel right at home and brimming with confidence.
Team captain Julien Benneteau has kept faith with the five women who sealed their semi-final win over Romania, led by Kristina Mladenovic, ranked 40th in the world.
She is backed by Caroline Garcia (45), Alize Cornet (60), Fiona Ferro (63) and Pauline Parmentier (122) as they target France’s first title since 2003.
As well as an Australian team spearheaded by Barty and Stosur, they will have to deal with a crowd at Perth Arena willing their home country towards a first title since 1974.
Returning to the Australian west coast city brought back fond memories for Mladenovic and Cornet, who separately led France to Hopman Cup titles before the mixed team event was axed this year for the new ATP Cup.
“From the first time I stepped on the court yesterday, I had such great memories and great vibes,” Mladenovic, who partnered Richard Gasquet to win the Hopman Cup in 2017, told reporters on Wednesday.
“It’s definitely an advantage when you know the court and where you’ve won in the past.
“When you’ve won a tough competition somewhere it’s always a great place for you where you feel confident and you feel like you can repeat the story,” she added.
Cornet won the Hopman Cup with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2014, while Garcia also represented France at the tournament, in 2016 when Australia won.
Seven-time Fed Cup champions Australia hold a 5-1 record over two-time winners France, although the French triumphed in the most recent tie between the two nations in 2000.
While the odds might be stacked in Australia’s favour, Mladenovic said her team had the advantage of playing a Fed Cup final before, in 2016, and that could prove invaluable.
Mladenovic, Garcia and Cornet all featured in that tie, which they agonisingly lost 3-2 to the Czech Republic.
“Even though the last one was at home, I still think it’s a big advantage to know how it feels to be up there with all the pressure,” Mladenovic said. “I’m optimistic and positive about this aspect.”
France, who also won the Fed Cup in 1997, qualified for the final with a thrilling 3-2 win over Romania in Rennes in spite of losing two singles matches to Simona Halep.
Garcia and Parmentier both won in the other singles to set up a deciding doubles match in which Garcia & Mladenovic beat Halep & Monica Niculescu.
Benneteau has yet to decide who will play in Perth on Saturday and Sunday.
Molik is quick to acknowledge the credentials of the French team, which has remained largely unchanged since they last appeared in the final just three years ago.
“I don’t think there’s favourites, honestly,” Molik said. “They’ve reached a couple of finals very recently – we haven’t. This is our first in a long time.
“On the flip side we’ve got a couple of players, in particular, Sam and Ash, who are bringing in a lot of momentum from last week [at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen].
“We bring match conditions and match momentum into a tie, which is always my preference.
“Kiki [Mladenovic] has [also] come off the back of her doubles win, so what it does make for is, I think, a lot of form players. That’s what we want, I think that’s what the public wants, players at their best.
“I think that’s why it’s going to be such a brilliant spectacle.”
Although the French have four players ranked inside the top 65 in singles, Australia also has no shortage of options when it comes to singles and doubles duties on the weekend.
The inclusion of World No 51 Ajla Tomljanovic in the team has made competition for the second singles spot behind Barty far hotter.
According to Molik, Stosur, Hon and Sharma are all in the running for a call-up in addition to Tomljanovic, who said she was thrilled to finally make her Fed Cup debut after becoming an Australian resident five years ago.
“I don’t know if it’s ever happened that someone just comes in and joins the final. I’m definitely not complaining but I know it’s a bit odd,” Tomljanovic said.
“If I got the chance to play obviously I would be super honoured and I would step up to the task.
“As Alicia said, there’s so much depth in our team that whoever gets the spot I think is going to do a great job.”
Stosur, Australia’s most successful Fed Cup player ever, says she is willing to take a back seat in the singles rubbers, allowing newcomer Tomljanovic to take the court if necessary.
“I will certainly be putting my hand up and, if Alicia wants to put me in, it will be something really special to be playing on the weekend,” she said.
“If not, then I will be on the sidelines cheering Ajla, or whoever is picked.”
Barty was delighted to touch down on home soil and join her teammates for a week she said she had been targeting all year.
While she has been running on adrenaline in her last week of the regular season at the WTA Finals, the 23-year-old Queenslander is undefeated in her past 14 Fed Cup rubbers, and says will have no trouble recharging ahead of this weekend’s action in Perth.
“I’m feeling great. It was nice to get out there in a pretty cruisy, light-hearted hit, just to work on a little bit of doubles stuff,” she said.
“I know what I need to do to be right to play on the weekend. There’s no different preparation for what I would do from a normal tournament.
“It’s just pretty special that I get to wear Australia on my back all week and then, hopefully, finish off the year really well.
“There’s nothing better than playing in the green and gold. And representing your country. It’s a format that I love, I cherish it.
“This is going to be a really precious week.”
The Fed Cup final will be held over two days on the weekend of 9-10 November at the RAC Arena in Perth, western Australia.
The venue, which holds 15,000 people and is the home to the Perth Wildcats NBL team, also hosted the Hopman Cup until the tournament was abandoned earlier this year.
Two singles matches will be played on Saturday, with the reverse singles and doubles on Sunday.
The first country to win three rubbers wins the tie and will be crowned Fed Cup champions.
As she did in Australia’s first round and semi-final ties, Barty is likely to play two singles matches and the doubles, if necessary.
Captain Molik will decide whether Stosur or Tomljanovic, Australia’s second highest ranked player, will contest the other singles rubbers.
In all likelihood, Barty will then team up with Stosur for the doubles on Sunday.
Sadly there is no TV coverage of the event in the UK, but it can be viewed on the Fed Cup website for €4.99 or, for French viewers, on France 3, while the host broadcaster in Australia is the Nine network.