Tennis

Barty, Mladenovic ease to swift wins as Fed Cup final is all square after first day

PERTH, Australia — Two quick wins by Australia and France’s top-ranked players left the 2019 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas final deadlocked at 1-1 at the end of the first day of play on Saturday.

Kristina Mladenovic of France kicked off the tie with an overwhelming 6-1, 6-1 victory over Ajla Tomljanovic, who was making her first Fed Cup appearance representing Australia. Mladenovic continues a stellar run of form, as she is less than a week removed from defending her Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen doubles title with Timea Babos.

Read more: World No.1 Barty targets Fed Cup glory

The tie quickly reached level footing, though, as World No.1 Ashleigh Barty dispatched former World No.4 Caroline Garcia, 6-0, 6-0, to give Australia their first win of the weekend. Like Mladenovic, Barty is coming off of a triumphant week in Shenzhen, as the reigning Roland Garros champion finished the WTA season by winning the singles title at the Shiseido WTA Finals.

“This is remarkable,” said Barty, in her on-court post-match interview. “I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect match. 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.”

It was Mladenovic who opened the tie with overpowering play, quickly attaining a huge advantage as the first set of the first match got underway. The French No.1 used extremely aggressive returning and fearsome forehands to blast her way to two early breaks of the Tomljanovic serve, collecting a 3-0 lead.

Tomljanovic claimed one of the breaks back, getting herself on the board at 3-1 after Mladenovic double faulted while down break point. However, that would prove to be the only occasion where Mladenovic would falter in the opening frame, as she immediately resumed using huge forehand service returns to break Tomljanovic once more for 4-1.

Despite Tomljanovic’s exceptional defense often extending rallies to their breaking point, Mladenovic continued her pattern of pristine first-strike play, and notched her one-set lead by claiming the final two points with error-forcing forehand returns.

It was much more of the same in the second set, as Mladenovic crushed a return winner to break Tomljanovic at love for a 2-0 lead, and then denied the Australian No.2 three chances to hold in her next service game, eventually breaking for 4-0.

Tomljanovic finally held serve for the first time in the encounter at 5-0, but it would not spur on a comeback, as Mladenovic served out the match in the next game to put France up 1-0. Mladenovic finished the match with 17 winners — 15 of those coming off the forehand side — while Tomljanovic could only muster up two winners in the 72-minute tilt.

“I love this kind of event — the bigger the pressure it is, the more special the event,” Mladenovic said, during her on-court interview. “I love fighting, and I’m so proud to give this first point to my team, to my country, to our supporters and our federation.”

“I came out there and just wanted to win, basically,” Mladenovic added, with a laugh. “[Tomljanovic is] a good friend of mine and I think the level was great. I really did almost a perfect match, I was really in the zone.”

With her team down 0-1, Barty came out on fire, and started a first-set serving clinic in the opening game of her match, as she blasted two aces en route to a hold. The World No.1 then cracked the set open by firing a lovely lob over the head of Garcia, then volleying away the Frenchwoman’s reply to break for 2-0. Barty earned a second break with a forehand passing winner to obtain a commanding 4-0 lead.

After crunching another ace to close out a hold for 5-0, Barty became embroiled in a lengthy game as Garcia fought valiantly to avoid the bagel. The French No.2 started to hit her targets more successfully when the chips were down, forcing errors and evading four set points.

However, an errant overhead by Garcia gave Barty a fifth set point, which she converted with a deft crosscourt backhand. The Australian had six aces overall in the opening stanza, and won 12 of her 14 service points without ever facing a break point during that timeframe.

For the second time on Saturday, there were no momentum swings after a dominant first set. Barty broke for 2-0 by finishing off a rally with a forehand winner, and continued to use her serve divinely as she eased to 3-0.

With a 4-0 lead, Barty finally faced break points for the first time in the encounter, but two huge serves staved Garcia’s chances off, and the Australian held on for 5-0. Garcia then erased two match points in the next game, but on the third, the Frenchwoman pushed a forehand into the net, giving Barty the 56-minute double-bagel win.

The teams move into the three decisive Sunday matches on level footing, where Barty and Mladenovic are scheduled to face off after their outstanding Saturday performances.

“[Kristina] was able to control the ball a little bit [in the first match],” Barty said on court. “That’s the challenge for me tomorrow: to come out and try to take her out of her comfort zone. She was free-swinging a little bit at the start and got on a little bit of a roll.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge tomorrow, I can’t wait to play out here in front of all you guys, with my team, and hopefully we can come away with the goods tomorrow.”

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