In Fed Cup Fables, wtatennis.com will look back at the most memorable ties over the past five years of Fed Cup. Continuing the countdown is France's challenging 3-2 victory over Australia in the 2019 World Group Final.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Two nations with multiple Fed Cup titles to their name advanced to the World Group Final once more in 2019, as seven-time winners Australia would host the two-time champions France. However, despite both teams’ storied histories and patterns of success in the event, each squad needed to fight through stern tests to get to the final weekend.
After a 3-1 quarterfinal victory over Belgium, the French squad lined up at home in Rouen to square off against a determined Romanian team. World No.2 Simona Halep led her team to a 2-1 advantage in the semifinal tie, putting her nation one match away from their very first Fed Cup World Group Final.
France, though, was undaunted, and pulled off a sterling comeback with decisive wins by Pauline Parmentier and the doubles team of Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, dashing the Romanians’ hopes and booking their spot in the World Group Final for the first time since their runner-up showing in 2016.
“Every match was incredible," French captain Julien Benneteau said, following the tie. "The final will be a massive challenge for us, with nothing to lose," he continued. "But now we will have a good night.”
Australia’s path to the World Group final had been just as dangerous. Earlier in the year, the team from Down Under had needed wins in decisive doubles rubbers in both their quarterfinal and semifinal matches, eking out 3-2 victories over the United States in the quarters and Belarus in the final four.
"I think the clarity that we had, the game plan that we had, we didn’t stray from it, we stuck to it, and in the big moments we brought our our best," top Aussie Ashleigh Barty said, after partnering Samantha Stosur to a tight doubles win over Belarus. "When you’re wearing the green and gold that’s pretty special.’’
Notably, by the time the World Group Final had rolled around, Barty had improved her ranking from the lower part of the Top 10 at the start of the season to World No.1, and had gone 4-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles to propel her squad through those difficult ties in 2019.
A fascinating final between two of the four teams to contest every single Fed Cup competition was therefore in the offing -- and as the weekend progressed, it did not disappoint in terms of tension.
WHAT HAPPENED: With so much on the line, the first day of the tie in Perth went surprisingly quickly. Mladenovic swiftly put the visitors up 1-0 with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-1 victory over Ajla Tomljanovic, who was playing her first-ever Fed Cup match for Australia. Mladenovic fired 17 winners past Tomljanovic, who could only muster up two winners in the 72-minute tilt.
In a comment that presaged the remainder of the weekend, Mladenovic stated on court after the match that she “love[s] this kind of event -- the bigger the pressure it is, the more special the event.”
World No.1 Barty, though, was unfazed by her rival’s dominant victory. The reigning Roland Garros champion followed on home turf and displayed a stunning level of her own, dispatching former World No.4 Caroline Garcia 6-0, 6-0, in just 56 minutes. Barty never faced a break point until 6-0, 4-0, and fended off two Garcia opportunities in that game to collect the double-bagel.
"I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect match,” Barty said during her post-match on-court interview. “I think that’s probably the best tennis match I’ve ever played in my life, and what a place to do it.”
Barty, though, knew the powerful play by Mladenovic would create difficulties in their Sunday showdown. “That’s the challenge for me tomorrow: to come out and try to take [Mladenovic] out of her comfort zone,” Barty continued on court. “She was free-swinging a little bit at the start [against Tomljanovic] and got on a little bit of a roll.”
On Sunday, Barty started the day seemingly having figured out how to get past Mladenovic, easing to a 6-2 lead in their encounter. However, in the latter stages of the second set, Mladenovic began to create exquisite passing shots beyond the reach of the forward-thinking Barty, and grasped the second set 6-4.
In the decider, Mladenovic was a point away from a 4-1, double-break lead, but Barty stayed the course and the duo reached a decisive tiebreak. It was in the breaker where Mladenovic’s aggressive play paid dividends, as she used stellar serves and more passing proficiency to sweep it 7-1 and claim her second win over a World No.1 in the 2019 season.
“When you play the World No.1 at this level, you can’t fail and give away opportunities,” Mladenovic said after what would turn out to be a pivotal comeback win for her team. “I just kept believing because I felt I was out there fighting and giving a hard battle, and I’m just so proud how I kept pushing, and I won at the end."
With France up 2-1, Tomljanovic came to the rescue for the home team, as she earned her first Fed Cup win for Australia with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Pauline Parmentier. "I’m really glad I got a second chance today, and got the win, kept us in," Tomljanovic said on court after her breakthrough rubber.
Just as they both had to do in the semifinals, France or Australia would be forced to claim a winner-take-all doubles match to triumph in the tie. The lineup of Garcia and Mladenovic versus Barty and Samantha Stosur was star-studded, as all four players are Grand Slam champions in women’s doubles.
In the end, the French pair came back from an early break down to storm to victory, as Garcia and Mladenovic notched a 6-4, 6-3 win to claim the third Fed Cup title for France -- and their nation’s first championship trophy since 2003.
Garcia and Mladenovic were also exorcising demons from the 2016 World Group Final, where they fell in the decisive doubles match to the Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova and Barbora Strycova.
"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 while celebrating on court. "Today we just wanted to play for a little revenge for ourselves, and it’s just not describable how we feel right now."
WHAT IT MEANT: “I dreamt about that at the beginning of the year, and then it comes true,” French captain Benneteau said, following the triumph of his team: Garcia, Mladenovic, Parmentier, Alizé Cornet, and Fiona Ferro. “It’s awesome.”
“I knew that if all five were together, they would be able to accomplish great things," Benneteau continued. "It was my main goal since the beginning of the year – I told them, and they agreed with that. Then it’s their call, their decision to be here, 100 percent dedicated to the French team for one goal at the end: lift the Fed Cup. And it happened. I’m so proud of them.”
For Mladenovic in particular, it proved that her professed love of pressure was a statement of fact, as the singles and doubles threat won all three of her matches over the weekend.
“To win it like that with Caro, it’s as if it was written,” Mladenovic said, after the tie. “It was destiny. It’s a great story.”
“It’s anchored in me, it’s my personality, my mind, my attitude, my passion for tennis and for the fight,” added Mladenovic. “The harder it is, the more I work.”
As of April 2020, France currently sits atop the Fed Cup rankings as the reigning champions.