Not all fairy tales come true, as Ash Barty discovered on the second day of the Fed Cup final in Perth, western Australia, after Kiki Mladenovic managed to find a way to defeat the World No 1 in the reverse singles and then went on to overpowered Barty & Sam Stosur to capture France’s third Fed Cup title and first in 16 years since 2003.
Today we just wanted to play for a little revenge for ourselves, and it’s just not describable how we feel right now Kiki Mladenovic
Australia’s dream of ending a 45 year drought in the Fed Cup was upset by a fighting France, spearheaded by Mladenovic, who clinched the final in the deciding doubles rubber in Perth.
Mladenovic won all 3 of her rubbers, carrying the French team to victory against the home favourites, Australia, 3-2 after the tie went to a 5th and final rubber.
The French No 1 was partnered by Caroline Garcia who, on Saturday, was double-bagelled by Barty in a flawless demonstration as to why the Australian has climbed to the year-ending top ranking and pocketed both the WTA Finals and tennis’ record prize money haul of $4.42 million.
For her it was disappointment, but the French, it was a dramatic victory.
“I’m not sure I’ve completely realised, because it’s been a crazy weekend for everyone,” Garcia said. “The doubles went very fast, but we played every point so focused, and we played a great match and it was very tense.”
The two countries were level at 1-1 after Saturday’s play, with Mladenovic beating Ajla Tomljanovic, 6-1 6-1, and Barty blowing out Garcia, 6-0 6-0.
On Sunday, however, Mladenovic, turned the tables and proved to be the better player when she stunned Barty in a final set breaker with the loss of just 1 point.
Tomljanovic had avoided elimination by forcing a deciding doubles with an edgy 6-4 7-5 victory over Garcia’s replacement, Pauline Parmentier.
“It’s lots of emotions to share this with Caro after three years ago we failed on the last step of the tie,” Mladenovic said.
“Today we just wanted to play for a little revenge for ourselves, and it’s just not describable how we feel right now.”
It was the green-and-gold’s 9th consecutive loss in a final dating back to 1975, but Australia’s captain Alicia Molik was steely when responding to that statistic.
“We’ll take the 10th, I assure you that,” she said. “We gave everything today. We fell just a fraction short. That happens.
“I don’t regret any step of the way. We’ve had to come together for such a long period of time now.
“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 colours today. I think she carried all of the French team on her shoulders.
“It was an unbelievable display. She sort of took it out of our hands, I felt.”
It took Mladenovic 3 sets to take out Barty to give France a 2-1 lead over Australia, just when the World No 1 seemed to be in scintillating form
It looked as if the Australian was well on course when she comfortably took the first set against the No 40 in the world, who found her touch to claw back the second, and then toppled Barty in the tiebreak, 2-6 6-4 7-6(1) in a packed but stunned Perth Arena.
“It’s hard to speak,” said an emotional Mladenovic afterwards as the tears flowed. “We [the team] kept on fighting for every point and that’s the way I like to play my tennis.”
Barty had continued from where she left off on Saturday, breaking Mladenovic’s first service game with a volley to extend her streak to 15 games this weekend.
The World No 1 broke the Frenchwoman in game 2 and took control, racing to a 5-2 lead in the first set.
Two quick errors brought Mladenovic back to deuce in the 8th game, and then a brilliant cross-court forehand from Barty set up set-point.
The Australian hit a fierce dipping return of serve that Mladenovic could only tip into the net, and the first set was Barty’s 6-2, after 34 minutes.
She went to 4 deuces before holding for 1-0 in the second, and games then went with serve.
Mladenovic went up 0-30 in the 7th, but Barty went on to hold, fist-pumping as she went off court.
Barty forced 2 break points in the next game but netted returns on both opportunities as Mladenovic held on for 4-4.
The advantage swung to the Frenchwoman minutes later, as Mladenovic forced an error from Barty to grab the break for a 5-4 lead.
Mladenovic then quietened the crowd, holding serve to level the match at a set apiece.
Games went on serve to start the final set, but Mladenovic broke Barty to lead 2-1.
The Australian then had 3 break point opportunities in the 6th game, missing the first 2 before a Mladenovic error made it 3-3 and the crowd erupted.
Games went on serve to 4-4, but it fell apart for Barty in the 9th game, as she was broken to love.
Mladenovic came out to serve for the match, but the adrenaline pushed her swinging volley long for 0-15.
Barty took advantage, pushing her opponent round the court to get to 3 break points, needing just one to level at 5-5.
The Australian double faulted in the next game to bring up break point, but recovered with an ace down the T.
Mladenovic answered with a brilliant dipping return that forced an error, but Barty saved the second break point with a great serve before winning the game with an incredible stop volley to hold for 6-5.
The set headed into a tiebreak, and Mladenovic took the early mini-break, which Barty answered immediately for 1-1.
The Frenchwoman then hooked a forehand winner to break for 3-1, and a Barty error made things harder for Australia, as the French fans chanted ‘Kiki!’.
An ace to Mladenovic made it 5 match points at 6-1, and then she forced one final error from the Australian to clinch the match 2-6 6-4 7-6(1).
The loss snapped Barty’s incredible unbeaten run of 15 straight matches in Fed Cup competition.
She came into the tie having just won the WTA Finals and ending the season as the world’s top-ranked player and her momentum, and reserves, eventually just ran out.
“I fought as hard as I could. I hope that I did my team proud. I hope that I did all Australians proud because I fought with everything I had left,” Barty said after going down to Mladenovic.
“I think for me there were things that I would have liked to have done a little bit differently but I think overall I still have no regrets. It’s been an incredible season for me.
“I fought with everything, I’ve given everything that I absolutely could for this team.”
Tomljanovic, who was crushed by Mladenovic in the first singles rubber, played the experienced Pauline Parmentier in the second rubber., despite her nervy performance on Saturday.
A month after becoming eligible to represent Australia, Croatia-born Tomljanovic rewarded captain Molik’s faith with a gutsy 6-4 7-5 win over the French veteran to level the tie at 2-2.
The French team, had chosen to replace Garcia with 33-year-old Parmentier, the World No 122.
Tomljanovic had admitted to feeling nerves against Mladenovic in her Fed Cup debut, and the pressure was now on her to keep Australia’s hopes alive.
She held her opening few service games as the crowd got behind her, and games went on serve until the 10th game of the match.
The Australian won consecutive points to get to 15-40 and 2 set points.
Parmentier saved one, but not the second, and Tomljanovic sealed the first set in 41 minutes.
The second set was tight until Tomljanovic made the breakthrough, breaking Parmentier to lead 4-2.
The experience of the French player told, as she broke straight back and then held for 4-4.
The tension rose as Parmentier raised the pressure on the Australian, but Tomljanovic held for 6-5, and then, with the crowd roaring her home, she set up 2 match points.
Parmentier served down the middle, Tomljanovic rifled a two-handed backhand close to the baseline, jamming her opponent who could only hit the net with her return.
It briefly revived the home fans’ hopes, but there was still a mountain to climb against Garcia & Mladenovic.
Australia’s long-serving Stosur, surprisingly overlooked for the singles despite her outstanding Fed Cup record, came into the decider cold.
She duly struggled with the heat of Garcia & Mladenovic’s shot-making but even the most battle-ready pairing might have fallen short against the French, who played flawlessly to ensure their march to the victory podium.
Mladenovic & Garcia overpowered Barty and Australia’s most successful Fed Cup player Stosur, 6-4 -6-3.
The straight sets victory was somewhat of an anti-climax ending to what was otherwise an epic day of teams tennis, but, for the French, who broke their own drought with their first Fed Cup since 2003, took the win under any circumstances.
Mladenovic & Garcia admitted the victory was even more special for them, given the pair fell short in the deciding rubber against the Czech Republic 3 years ago.
“Three years ago we failed on the last step of the tie and today we wanted to take this little revenge for ourselves. It’s not describable to tell you how we feel right now,” Mladenovic said on court after the victory.
Captain Julien Benneteau, who said he would be having ‘a lot of beers’ to celebrate long into the night, said he had dreamed of this moment at the beginning of the year.
“I’m the proudest man on the planet right now. I’m so proud of my girls and my team, they deserve it because they fought for a long time for this title.”
A devastated Barty was still able to see the positives following Australia’s Fed Cup final loss to France.
Barty wept on court during the trophy presentation after she & Sam Stosur had gone down, 6-4 6-3, to France’s Garcia & Mladenovic in the decisive doubles rubber.
The World No 1 was nonetheless able to see the bigger picture, that a first Fed Cup final for Australia in 26 years, played in Perth in front of record crowds, capped an exceptional season.
“We gave everything today,” says Molik
“Personally I wouldn’t want to be sitting here with anyone else,” Barty said.
“It’s been an amazing journey. An amazing time of year for us. To be able to be in a Fed Cup final is something that’s very precious. We’ll cherish it and it will drive us more for next year.
“Playing in front of almost 14,000 Australians for me is incredible and it’s a really, really special time of my life.
“I think each Fed Cup tie that we’ve had in Australia is gaining more and more attention and exposure.
“I think you can see how much it means to all of us and obviously it’s bitterly disappointing to be sitting here.
“I think it’s going to be a tough one. This is something that all of us have been looking forward to for 6 months.
“Now it’s about resting, recovering and reflecting on the year that’s been, for me.
“But I think for all of us, just in a Fed Cup specific point of view, the journey that we’ve been on is simply remarkable, in the last two years, it really has.”
France defeated Australia, 3-2
Venue: RAC Arena, Perth, AUS (hard – outdoor)
Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) d. Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS), 6-1 6-1
Ashleigh Barty (AUS) d. Caroline Garcia (FRA), 6-0 6-0
Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) d. Ashleigh Barty (AUS), 2-6 6-4 7-6(1)
Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS) d. Pauline Parmentier (FRA), 6-4 7-5
Garcia & Mladenovic (FRA) d. Barty & Samantha Stosur (AUS), 6-4 6-3