World No 1 Ashleigh Barty levelled the Fed Cup final at 1-1 in scorching conditions in Perth, western Australia, crushing France’s Caroline Garcia, 6-0 6-0, in just 56 minutes.
I'm so happy to be back here in Perth. I started my year here, so it's a hell of a way to finish it off too Ashleigh Barty
Barty was at her brilliant best in what was a sweltering day in Perth as temperatures hit 40 degrees over in the West.
Australia had their backs against the wall after Ajla Tomljanovic was unable to get a result they were looking for in her first-ever Fed Cup tie, blown off the court by Kristina Mladenovic, who produced 16 winners to the Aussie’s 2, in a dominant, 6-1 6-1, display.
Looking to end their 45-year Fed Cup title drought, Team Australia were greeted with a record crowd of 13,000, who flooded through the gates on Saturday morning, smashing the record for attendance of a women’s tennis event.
It has been 30 years since Australia last won the Fed Cup title, when Evonne Goolagong, Dianne Fromholtz and Janet Young defeated the United States 2-1 in Italy, and 26 year since the country last reached the final, leaving fans with little to cheer about.
With just Sam Stosur’s 2011 US Open title and Barty’s breakout French Open title in June the only Grand Slam singles wins since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980, Australia’s return to the Fed Cup world stage has seen fans flooding back.
While Australia did not get off the perfect start, with Tomljanovic falling in the opening match, Barty stood tall as she made easy work of Garcia and continues to almost single-handedly bring Australian women’s tennis back from the brink.
Just two years ago it was Barty who saved Australia from plummeting into the Fed Cup Asia/Pacific Group I, while in 2019 she remains unbeaten at 7-0 in Fed Cup rubbers and is on track to become the only player to win every match on her way to the Fed Cup title.
There are some incredible stats that show just how dominant Barty was on the court against Garcia – she delivered 90% of points on her first serve, won 55 points to Garcia’s 26, and converted 6 of a whopping 14 breakpoints.
In her post-match interview, Barty was happy with her efforts to square up the tie for the Aussies.
“I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect match,” Barty said. “I think that’s probably the best tennis match I’ve ever played in my life, and what a place to do it, this is incredible.
“I’m so happy to be back here in Perth. I started my year here, so it’s a hell of a way to finish it off too.”
Barty will now face Mladenovic first on Sunday, before Tomljanovic takes on Garcia.
If the tie remains 2-2 after those two matches, Barty will partner Sam Stosur in the doubles, and they will take on Mladenovic & Garcia for France.
Both teams, however, have the option of changing their nominated players for Sunday’s rubbers, and it remains to be seen whether team captain Alicia Molik will opt to substitute Tomljanovic for the vastly experienced Stosur in the singles.
France have a full-strength squad at their disposal, with the nation’s top 5 players primed for action.
“When you play a Fed Cup final with the No 1 in the world in the other side, and away, you cannot say that you have an advantage,” Captain Julien Benneteau said. “But for sure, I have a lot of options for singles and doubles.
“During the first two rounds we proved that we have won the ties with two, three different players who played in singles, and for us it’s an advantage because you never know what can happen on Saturday in the first two singles.
“It can be very hard physically and mentally, and then the Sunday it’s a huge day with two singles and one doubles, so a lot of options for sure.
“It’s kind of a headache for me during the week, but at the weekend it’s a privilege.”
In the French squad he still has experienced singles players in Alize Cornet and Pauline Parmentier to call on.
Representing Australia for the first time, the nervous Tomljanovic was no match for a red-hot opponent who prevailed in an hour and 11 minutes.
The 26-year-old, Croatian-born Tomljanovic only received clearance from the ITF to represent her adopted country last month.
With the temperature climbing to 36 degrees before midday and a near-capacity crowd at RAC Arena rallying behind her, the conditions were in World No 51 Tomljanovic’s favour but it counted for little in a match in which the Australian held serve just once, in the second last game, and managed only 2 winners for the match compared to Mladenovic’s 16.
The statistics were as formidable as the scoreline as Mladenovic pummelled 10 of her 16 winners in the opener, 9 from her forehand wing, as she denied Tomljanovic the chance to establish any front-foot momentum.
Both players struggled with their first serve, but while the Frenchwoman was able to recover in the points, the Australian debutant managed just 9 points behind her delivery in the opener.
Mladenovic showed no signs of letting up in the second set, breaking to love for a 2-0 lead as the errors began to rack up for Tomljanovic, desperate to hit her way into the contest.
There were brief flashes of the flat power the 26-year-old possesses that saw her selected ahead of Samantha Stosur, but with her serve still faltering, nothing could halt the Mladenovic charge.
Tomljanovic gave the capacity crowd something to cheer about with a hold to avoid a second-set bagel at 5-1, but it was a brief reprieve as Mladenovic served out in just 72 minutes, roaring with delight as she celebrated with the French bench.
“It’s a tough task for Ajla playing straightaway in the final,” Mladenovic said. “I almost played a perfect match. I was really in the zone.”
Tomljanovic admitted she struggled with nerves: “I wish I could have done better in the circumstances.
“It didn’t go as planned,” she said. “It’s really unique. You’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for your country and teammates.”
The Australian finally held serve on her 7th attempt, but it only slightly delayed Mladenovic’s inevitable victory.
Fresh from partnering Hungary’s Timea Babos to successfully defend their doubles title at last week’s season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen, Mladenovic is set to pose a stern test for Barty.
The Frenchwoman sounded an ominous warning in a match where she wielded her lethal forehand to devastating effect: “I love this kind of event,” she added.
“The more pressure it is, the more special is the event. I love fighting and I’m so proud to give this first point to my team, to my country.”
The nerveless Barty, however, looked more than relaxed and focused, relishing the occasion.
She entered the court with her young niece in her arms and her nephew alongside with the broadest of smiles on her face and the crowd went wild.
She started the rubber with an ace, the first of 8 she delivered against the hapless Garcia, who tried everything she could think of to disturb the Aussie’s equilibrium.
With 56 wins to her credit on the WTA tour this year, including 12 Top 10 wins, Barty’s demolition of the Frenchwoman was virtually flawless.
“Certainly from a complete point of view, and having a complete game [it was the best],” Barty said following the match. “I felt like I served really well, I feel like I made a lot of returns which is always going to key.
“I think most importantly I played the big points well. There were still a few games where I really wanted to try and assert myself and I was able to do that really well today.
“I executed very well, I made Carro [Caroline Garcia] pretty uncomfortable.
“I felt like in the first 3 or 4 of my service games, I was in control of a lot of the points and Carro’s the type of player that likes court position and she likes to be up in the court – so that was a key factor for me today.
“Then also it was probably the best I’ve returned in a long, long time.”
The record crowd, many of whom were decked out in green and gold, had been left quiet after Mladenovic made easy work of Tomljanovic, but they were quick to their feet with the arrival of Barty on court.
A crowd favourite, Barty had the RAC Arena roaring after she took an early 3-0 lead after 7 minutes, before she closed out the opening set 6-0 in just 29 minutes.
They gave Barty a standing ovation after she closed out the match in under an hour.
“I think Australians in general have a great support network around the world, I think Aussies love watching Aussies and supporting them, but it brings different spirit here as a player when you see so much green and gold,” Team Australia captain Alicia Molik said following the match.
“Our team sat there for a while watching the crowd walk into the stadium, how happy how jovial everyone is to arrive at the stadium, excited to watch sport. That gives us a lot of energy, we love that.
“That to us means we’re doing something right in women’s tennis; people want to buy tickets, people want to come and watch our players compete and play. That’s such a warm feeling for us.”
Barty is ready to face Mladenovic in the first reverse singles match on Sunday.
“I know she has the weapons to make me uncomfortable,” she said of the French No 1. “It’s about trying to nullify that the best I can.”
Fresh off her record $4.42 million triumph at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen last weekend, Barty overwhelmed the world No 45-ranked Garcia with potent serving and pinpoint shot-making, which she will seek to continue in her next rubber.
Garcia struggled in the sweltering conditions, and struck just 3 winners in her error-strewn performance.
“She didn’t leave me a lot of space. She played well from the first point,” Garcia said. “I was disappointed with my performance.”
France last won the Fed Cup in 2003, and most recently made the final in 2016.
With the final most likely going down to the doubles decider, Barty & Stosur will play Mladenovic & Garcia in the showdown.
Both pairs won three-set live fifth doubles matches in April’s semi-finals to send their countries to the final, when Australia beat Belarus and France defeated Romania.