November 10, 2019
Victorious France didn’t seem to read the script. Or rather they did, and just didn’t much like the storyline.
So the feisty French women decided to tear up the screenplay they had been offered, and write their own Fed Cup ending.
This was supposed to be all about Ash Barty and Australia. The French were meant to be the bridesmaids.
There was only going to be one leading lady in most people’s eyes. Barty, the world number one, who had just earned more than $4 million at the WTA finals.
Fulfilling her patriotic dream to win the Fed Cup for Australia for the first time in 45 years. Honouring the bond she feels with that great previous winner, Evonne Goolagong.
Those twin ambitions might well have been worth even more to Ashleigh. But it wasn’t to be.
France had other ideas. And above all, Kristina “Kiki” Mladenovic had her own concept of what gives a tennis plot a thrilling twist.
Let’s face it, Mladenovic almost won this final 3-2 on her own.
That’s no disrespect to Caroline Garcia, her doubles partner in the last, decisive rubber.
They had lost together to the Czech Republic in the final three years ago. They won this one together too.
‘A little bit of revenge,’ Kiki called it. Understandably, Australia may not have factored in that particular motivation.
But you have to give the determined Mladenovic the lion’s share of the credit for this monumental and frankly unlikely victory.
Where the jaded Barty just came up short at the end of a thrilling, draining year, Kiki provided the fireworks.
Not that it looked so simple when Barty took the first set of their singles showdown in what ultimately proved to be the pivotal match in a fascinating weekend. Few would have bet on Mladenovic at that stage.
But the underdog then relaxed, whereas maybe Barty had the finishing line of an epic 2019 in sight – and tightened accordingly.
The match, and the final itself, suddenly turned on its head – and Mladenovic came through 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-1).
A tie-break. On such fine margins are world tournaments effectively won, though there was still much to do in the last, decisive match.
Barty and Sam Stosur fought hard for their country. But Mladenovic, who had also beaten Ajla Tomljanovic 6-1, 6-1, was not to be denied.
Supported superbly by Garcia, she ignored the fervent home crowd and fed off the increasingly loud shrieks of “allez” as French fans sensed an upset in the making.
There were elements of luck – one key shot from Kristina dribbled just over the net. But when a result is decided over days and so many matches, you know you make your own luck.
The best team prevails. France proved they were suited to the occasion.
Congratulations to the French women, commiserations to Australia.
Will life change at all for Kiki? Maybe just a little. Superb player as she is, particularly in the doubles, Mladenovic has sometimes been best known as Dominic Thiem’s girlfriend.
Maybe she didn’t get enough respect as a world-beater. She will now.
She has extraordinary spirit. French with Serb origins, there are echoes of Novak Djokovic in the way she overcomes the toughest threats.
Mladenovic was stubbornly unstoppable in Australia, just when the popular storyline almost demanded that she cease.
What an exciting year for women’s tennis! The pleasing and shocking arrival of Coco Gauff at Wimbledon was of course such a wonderful highlight.
Fitting, then, that 2019 ended with yet another supremely dramatic twist.
C’est magnigique, n’est-ce pas?