After the efforts of Daniel Ricciardo and Renault this year in the realm of Formula One, relations between the Skippys and the Frogs are now worse than ever, and with the Fed Cup Final still to come, they were going to reach depths lower than the reviews for Terminator Dark Fate.
In Australia’s first Fed Cup Final since we were whipped by Conchita and Aranxta back in 1993, Alicia Molik made the big call to play freshly-minted Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in her Fed Cup debut (No pressure there) in the opening singles rubber against Kiki Mladenovic, and despite the blistering 39 degree temperatures here in Perth on Saturday, the Aussies decided to play a few mind games by leaving the roof open at Perth Arena, because apparently Europeans have never experienced our famed dry heat.
It’s not like they don’t play here every damn summer.
And of course, being a major tennis event in Perth, a certain Mrs Margaret Court was in attendance, just a few days after she’d complained about Tennis Australia not celebrating her 1970 Calendar Grand Slam in the same way that they revered Rocket Rod’s historic 1969 achievement.
To paraphrase Alanis Morissette, it’s quite ironic of Margaret to now start demanding equality, when she spent parts of 2017 doing the opposite.
Other than that, yes, it was a historic achievement that should be recognised in some form or another.
1st Rubber: Kristina Mladenovic defeated Ajla Tomljanovic 6-1, 6-1, 1-0 France
First up, it looked like playing Ajla in the singles had backfired spectacularly on Molik, but that said, I don’t think playing Stosur or Priscilla ‘Queen of the Desert’ Hon would have made much difference, because Mladenovic looked red hot all match.
Tomljanovic did show a bit of promise early by saving break points to bring the opening game back to deuce, after somehow staying alive in a point where Kiki was the aggressor for 99% of the time.
She was still broken though, and sadly, looked like a kangaroo against a road train against a fired up Mladenovic, who broke on all 4 opportunities in the opening set, and the only game Ajla won was a break to peg it back to 1-3, which was the only break Kiki conceded for the match.
It was pretty much the same in the 2nd Set, with Kiki winning the opening 5 games with little resistance, outside of the 4th game with 4 Deuces, but at least Ajla did get on the board in the 6th game with her only service hold of the match, but there was no denying reality- Mladenovic was simply too good, and she would claim the opening rubber as most people expected, with a pair of breadsticks.
Thus, Ash had to save our skins once again.
2nd Rubber: Ash Barty defeated Caroline Garcia 6-0, 6-0, (1-1)
As if seeing the bar being raised, Ash strolled on court, which as this point had a surface temperature comparable to the Simpson Desert, and put in a performance that said to Kiki, I see your double breadstick, and raise you a double bagel.
In just over an hour, she spat Garcia out the other side, who in all honesty, looked completely outmatched against a World No.1, who looked every bit like a World No.1.
6-0 6-0, in 56 bloody minutes.
It quite simply wasn’t even close.
Really, that’s putting it pretty lightly, because like most of my reviews, it never reached any great heights.
After the match, Ash said it was just about the best match she’s ever played, a big comment after her stellar year, and after two one-sided routs in the Saturday singles, things were evenly poised heading into Sunday, just as everyone would have hoped!
3rd Rubber: Mladenovic defeated Barty 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(7-1), 2-1 France
The 3rd rubber also doubled as the main singles rubber of the weekend, and it was the funny situation where the WTA’s No.1 singles player in Barty took on one half of the WTA’s No.1 doubles pairing in Mladenovic.
And of course, they both won titles in Shenzen as well!
Ash kicked off proceedings with an easy hold, and in the 2nd game, Mladenovic couldn’t hold from 30-0 up, and Barty took the break on the first attempt, held serve for 3-0, and that moment in time, had won 16 consecutive games dating back to the Shenzen final against Svitolina.
Kiki did settle in to the contest and held her next couple of services, but she never looked a threat on the Barty serve, and at 5-2 with set point on the French serve, Barty anticipated Mladenovic’s serve and volley, and her return forced the error, and the Aussies claimed the 1st Set 6-2, and crucially, Barty was serving first again.
At this point in time, the major celebrities were arriving for the Barty Party, and the guests that had rocked up 2 hours prior were 10 tinnies deep and having an absolute blast.
As the 2nd Set got underway, Mladenovic had an early look at 0-40, but Barty dug deep, and Mladenovic overcooked 2 forehands to bring it back to Deuce, then got another BP thanks to a cracking forehand that was saved again, Barty gave another one by sending a forehand long, which Mladenovic couldn’t convert due to getting taken out of court on her forehand, and Barty eventually held for 1-0.
From there both players settled down on serve again, but a crucial moment Ash had a very good chance to break at 4-3 30-40, but she dumped a rather tame forehand down the line into the net, and Mladenovic held crucially, in a game that went for 10 minutes.
Mladenovic sniffed blood in the nostirls and made 2 tough passes to bring up break up points, and she would strike when Barty skewed a forehand wide, and just like that, France were serving for the 2nd Set, and the only fans in the crowd who could believe it was that contingent of French supporters in front of the benches, chanting things all day in their indecipherable Romance language.
Seriously, I didn’t hear one rendition of ‘Ca plane pour moi’ all weekend… Very disappointing from Les Bleus.
Barty did cause a few headaches at 15-30, but Mladenovic recovered, and Barty really pissed away any hope of a break thanks to several errors, as the French held, and out of nowhere, they had a window back into the match, with that missed chance for a break at 4-3 proving extremely costly for the Aussies!
In the early games of the decider, Barty began cracking under the pressure, and the unforced errors piled up, Mladenovic broke, and at that moment in time, I figured Ash had no way back into the contest, considering Kiki was full of momentum and belief, as she’s not afraid to show, throwing out enough fist pumps to give herself a hand cramp.
Barty had a break point at 30-40, but made another unforced error by sending a backhand slice long, and Mladenovic held again with a couple of nifty serves.
Barty held for 2-3, and would again find herself with more break points on Kiki’s serve at 0-40, but the Frenchwoman would perform the equivalent of putting the pedal to the metal in a school zone, and after saving 2 break points, Barty finally got the opening, forced the error from Kiki’s backhand, and it was level again at 3-all!
Barty easily held for 4-3, and just like that, the Final had taken another massive twist.
Kiki held for 4-4, and then after doing all that work, Barty appeared to seal her own fate by sending a forehand long, and then dumping a low backhand slice into the net, and it was 5-4, with France serving to bring up the upset!
BUT- We weren’t done yet.
Staring defeat in the face, Barty dug deep and put the blowtorch on Mladenovic’s pretty tame serve, which tightened up like an ill-fitting pair of undies, bringing up another 3 break points, and she only needed one, because Kiki sent a low backhand slice a mile wide!
5-5, and the 11th game was just the epitome of the match.
As if on queue, Mladenovic applied some pressure of her own yet again to bring up 30-40, but Barty didn’t stuff up this time and brought up deuce with a winner, but then double faulted, and responded with an unreturnable serve up the tee, Mladenovic somehow picked up a slice backhand that hung low, Barty hit back with another beauty up the tee, then forced the backhand error on the 4th deuce, and then at Advantage, Barty reached up for a forehand valley that looked like it was going to land in and just sit up for Kiki to belt away.
It landed in, bounced back towards the net, Kiki could do nothing about it, and Barty let out a massive roar, and held for 6-5!
Kiki held to love, and it was a sudden death tiebreak to decide the rubber!
Despite all that promise, it was fairly anti-climatic, as Barty coughed up two mini breaks at 1-2, and it was all downhill from there, as Mladenovic stayed positive with some encouragement from Julien Benneteau, she went on the offensive, and secured the win pretty comprehensively with an almost flawless 7-1 scoreline, pretty much smashing the air out of Australia’s hopes of claiming the title in the process.
I had very bad flashbacks to the 2001 Davis Cup Final, when Nicholas frikkin’ Escude somehow knocked off Lleyton Hewitt in the 1st Singles Rubber just weeks after Rusty had reached World No.1, then defeated Wayne Arthurs in that 5th rubber, and France upset Australia in Melbourne.
I’m getting sidetracked, but Escude was epitome of a French tennis player- A world beater when he was on…. but 99% of the time, was maddeningly inconsistent… or injured.
And thus, Australia’s hopes of that breakthrough Fed Cup win rested on the shoulders of Ajla Tomljanovic, as Molik stuck to her guns and kept her in, and to be honest, after yesterday, it looked like a suicide mission.
4th Rubber: Tomljanovic defeated Pauline Parmentier 6-4, 7-5, 2-2.
The French pretty much confirmed their doubles pairing in the event of a live 5th rubber, by not playing Garcia in the final singles rubber, instead going for Pauline Parmentier, who was the lowest ranked player in the French team.
I’d have thought Benetteau would be like a baseball skipper in Game 7 of a World Series, bringing his best pitcher out of the bullpen in the 8th innings to seal the pennant, which in this case was Caroline, but he trusted Parmentier, given she won a crucial singles rubber against Romania in the Semi-Finals to get the French to the Final.
What they weren’t expecting was that Ajla looked a completely different player.
After running Parmentier ragged on set point, Tomljanovic eventually forced the error from the Frenchwoman, and claimed the 1st Set, and the big difference between her big loss to Kiki was quite simple- She wasn’t afraid to be aggressive.
After holds through the first 5 games, Tomljanovic got another break point on Parmentier’s serve, and at 30-40, she got a very hittable serve, her eyes lit up, and fired a devil of a forehand that the Frenchwoman had no time to react to!
With that 6-4 4-2 lead, Tomljanovic lost her cool from 30-0 up, and after having Advantage twice, she double faulted and gave the break back, as the wheels on Tomljanovic The Tank Engine started to develop a pit a wobble!
Just when it looked like Parmentier was going to break and serve for the set at 4-5, Tomljanovic fired an ace out wide, then produced a 1-2 backhand punch, and then another big serve to hold for 5-4.
Both players exchanged holds, and then at 6-5, Tomljanovic had a window at 15-30, and then Parmentier shanked a forehand down the line, bringing up 2 match points for the Aussies, and thanks to a booming deep backhand return from Tomljanovic, Parmentier could only send her dug out return flying wide, AND THE FINAL WAS TIED AT 2 APIECE!
It was a big cal, but Molik stuck her guns and came up big, whereas Beneteau tried a lineup change that didn’t work, and most people expected, it was 2-2 after the singles rubbers… but not in the way anyone saw coming!
5th Rubber: Garcia/Mladenovic defeated Barty/Stosur 6-4, 6-3, FRANCE WIN THE FED CUP 3-2.
And thus, the last home & away tie in Fed Cup history (For now) came down to one of the great things about Davis Cup and Fed Cup tennis.
A LIVE FIFTH RUBBER.
Of course, the Aussie ladies had reached the Final by winning a live 5th rubber against the US and A on the road, and Belarus in Brisbane.
In a match featuring 4 players who had all won Major doubles titles, I’d say Garcia and Mladenovic were definitely the better pair, given they had won a French Open title together (Before they split), and Kiki was, as previusly mentioned, coming off winning the End Of Year doubles title- Beating Sam along the way.
Garcia served first, and Barty and Stosur actively targeted her in the opening game to great success, breaking to 15, and Barty consolidated the break next game, as the Aussies got off to a rocket start.
Within about 5 points being played, it was pretty apparent was both sets of tactics would be- The French would target a possibly rusty Stosur, and the Aussies would target Garcia.
But, as quickly as the Aussies had been ahead, they were pulled back, as in true ‘Sam In Australia’ Fashion, she was broken to love on her first service.
As both teams settled down, Garcia kept the pressure on by holding for 4-5, leaving Barty to keep the Aussies alive in the 1st Set, but she couldn’t, and the French had a head full of steam, they had the first set, and were in the box seat to claim the trophy!
The wave turned into a tsunami when they broke Barty again to begin the 2nd set, extending their run to 4 consecutive games, and at 6-4 2-0, it was entering ‘Kingston Town Can’t Win’ territory for the Aussies.
Still, the Aussies conjured up 3 separate break points in the next game, before Garcia pulled 2 ridiculous passing shots out of her sphincter, and then Barty hit the 3rd BP straight back to Kiki, who swatted it away with absolute ease, and the French were 3-0 up, and absolutely roaring.
That gap was narrower than Geelong’s premiership window, and Caro somehow threaded it… and then did it again.
The Aussies eventually got on the board thanks to some desperate defence at the next from Barty and Stosur, but the fact that I’m writing desperate was just a sign of how much the French were on top, both tactically and on the scoreboard.
The Aussies got another look on Garcia’s serve at 30-40, but Stosur just couldn’t get the volley in after getting her footwork wrong, and the subsequent hold pretty much finished off the Aussies.
The French had Championship Points on Stosur’s next service, but they were saved by some good defensive play, and the Aussies at least forced the French to serve out the title.
Despite some nerves at 15-30, it was only fitting that Kiki would be the one to finish the Aussies off, and after Stosur was baited into one last uncontrollable error, the French had claimed their first Fed Cup title in 16 years!
Of course, everyone who didn’t participate flooded the court in celebration, like the kids who offer nothing to a group project in school, and still get an A+.
And thus, France have won a Fed Cup in Australia, and an Australian Open Women’s Singles title (Amelie Mauresmo in ’06) more recently than Australia has.
On the flip side, Australia has of course won the Women’s Singles title at the French Open more recently than the French.
The Nuclear Fallout
So the best chance in the last 45 years for the Aussies to win a Fed Cup, gone in a streaky white flash.
That said, a massive tick to the Perth crowd, with just under 14,000 for both days making this year’s final the 2nd best attendance for a Fed Cup final, only getting beaten by a bloody Major venue in Roland Garros when the French had Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo rolling around.
I’d say in the end, the factor that got the Aussies to the Final proved their downfall- A double-edged sword if you will.
They naturally relied too much on Ash, in the same way that Darth Vader relied on that iron lung of a black suit, and when she couldn’t get the job done from 6-2 4-3 and a break point up against Kiki, it felt like the Aussies had lost there and then- Of course, that was before Ajla stood up.
That said, Kiki ended up playing that Barty-esque role for France!
To win that 1st Rubber so easily, then somehow embody Nic Escude beating Lleyton Hewitt in that 3rd Rubber by knocking off Ash, who was 7/7 in the Fed Cup this year, and then in that winner take all 5th Rubber, she basically hauled Caroline Garcia arse-first over the line, despite their doubles partnership quite publicly ending back in 2017, when Caro decided to focus on her singles career, without properly telling Kiki.
It was some performance, especially from a player who basically has now become a doubles specialist, and a very successful one at that.
As well as that, Julien Benneteau, in his first year on the job, has now captained more Fed Cup wins than he won ATP singles titles in his career, having been beaten in 10 finals.
The fifth rubber was also the first time Sam had lost a Fed Cup doubles rubber in 5 attempts, and what a bad time it was for that to occur.
I feel bad for Sam, because it was the epitome of her career in Australia- You just knew something was going to go wrong… you just didn’t know when, but it was going to happen, and we were all going to get emotionally crushed.
But on a parting note to what was an incredibly even and well fought Final, I find it sad that we’ll never see a partisan atmosphere like that in a Fed Cup tie again.
What a bummer.