Australia are competing in their first Fed Cup final in 26 years, while France are aiming for their third title after narrowly missing out on the 2016 silverware, falling 3-2 to Czech Republic.
Read on below for previews of Saturday’s two singles ties.
Rubber 1: Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS) vs Kristina Mladenovic (FRA), 11.00am local time (3.00am GMT)
Tomljanovic will be making her Fed Cup debut for Australia after she was given last-minute permission to represent her adopted country for the final. The 26-year-old, who was born in Zagreb, last played Fed Cup for Croatia back in 2011, where she had a 3/3 singles record and 1/4 doubles scorecard – however, obviously those results don’t matter heading into this weekend’s pressure-filled final.
Tomljanovic was an immensely talented junior and was signed by IMG at the age of 12, but unfortunately multiple injury problems derailed the early stages of her career, most notably a shoulder injury that required surgery in 2016 and forced her onto the sidelines for over a year, while she also missed two months of action in 2017 due to a hip injury. But when Tomljanovic finally managed to get her body right last season, she produced the best year of her career, registering a 36-24 record that included making two WTA finals in Rabat and Seoul, while she also made quarter-finals in Mallorca, Monterrey, Hiroshima and San Jose before finishing the year at No. 46 in the world.
Ajla Tomljanovic (PA Images)
It’s been more or less the same sort of season for Tomljanovic in 2019 – she’s ended the year at No. 51 in the world, with her best results including a runner-up finish in Hua Hin, semi-finals in Zhengzhou and Rabat and quarter-finals in Brisbane and Nottingham, while she also earned two top 10 scalps over Aryna Sabalenka in Miami and Kiki Bertens in Zhengzhou. But winning the opening rubber in the Fed Cup final on debut for Australia would surely eclipse all over those achievements on Saturday.
Mladenovic is a seasoned Fed Cup competitor with an overall win-loss record of 21/10 in singles and doubles, most recently teaming up with Garcia to come from a set down to be a Simona Halep and Monica Niculescu in a decisive fifth rubber in the semi-finals against Romania in April. Mladenovic also won three singles matches last year as France made the semi-finals, losing out 3-2 to eventual champions USA.
Kristina Mladenovic (PA Images)
The Frenchwoman made her top 10 debut during her career-best 2017 season, winning her first WTA title in St. Petersburg, finishing runner-up at the Premier Mandatory Mutua Madrid Open and Premier-level Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, making her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final at the French Open and reaching the Indian Wells semi-finals, where she beat Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep along the way. However, just as it looked as if Mladenovic was about to become a top 10 mainstay, she endured a nightmare end to 2017, losing in the opening round of her last 12 tournaments, while things didn’t really get any better in 2018, with a run back to the St. Petersburg final her only real eye-catching result.
Mladenovic has registered an okay 2019 season with 31 wins to 27 losses, making the semi-finals of Moscow and Zhengzhou and the quarter-finals in Rome as a qualifier, but generally it’s been an underwhelming last couple of years since she first cracked the top 10.
Tomljanovic and Mladenovic have played twice before, but both matches came during the 2014 season, with Tomljanovic winning in straight sets in Miami and Strasbourg. The Australian will surely feel some nerves in her debut match for her adopted country, especially in a final, but if Tomljanovic can settle into the match, I think she’s been playing a little bit better than Mladenovic all season – and if she can feed off the home crowd support and draw confidence from her two previous wins over the Frenchwoman, she is in with a great chance of giving the hosts an early lead.
Rubber 2: Ashleigh Barty (AUS) vs Caroline Garcia (FRA), around 12.30pm local time (4.30am GMT)
It’s been a dream season for World No. 1 Barty, and what better way to end it than securing Fed Cup glory for her country.
We all know about Barty’s extraordinary year on tour, with the 23-year-old winning four titles across all surfaces (outdoor hard, indoor hard, grass and clay), capturing her first Grand Slam crown at Roland Garros, a maiden Premier Mandatory trophy in Miami, a first year-end WTA Finals championships in Shenzhen and the grass-court title in Birmingham, where she hit the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
Ashleigh Barty (PA Images)
However, what’s flown under the radar is her astonishing Fed Cup record, with Barty on a 14-match winning streak coming into the final – and should she win all three matches she’s scheduled to play in against France, she will be the first player to win the maximum number of ties in a year since the current format was established in 1995.
Barty was instrumental in leading Australia to a 3-2 win over defending champions USA in the quarter-finals, being Sofia Kenin and Madison Keys in straight sets before teaming up with Priscilla Hon to win the decisive doubles rubber. Barty was also the key to Australia’s 3-2 victory over Belarus in the semi-finals, toppling Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka in straight sets and partnering Sam Stosur to doubles glory over the aforementioned Belarusian pair to send her nation into the final.
Less than a week removed from her historic WTA Finals triumph in Shenzhen, where she became the first Australian to win the season-ending championships since her idol Evonne Goolagong Cawley back in 1976 (and pocketed record prize money in the process), can Barty conjure up the energy for one last push in the Fed Cup final to close out a dream 2019?
French captain Julien Benneteau and Caroline Garcia (PA Images)
Caroline Garcia stands in her way in the first singles rubber on Saturday. Garcia also has a tremendous Fed Cup record, winning 11 of 16 singles matches and six of seven doubles ties, including four victories from five rubbers this year, with her only loss coming in three sets to Simona Halep in the semi-finals. Garcia ultimately partnered Mladenovic to glory in the doubles to propel France into the final, but she faces a big test to continue her great Fed Cup form on Saturday against the World No. 1.
After taking her game to the next level towards the end of 2017 as she won 11 consecutive matches to become the first woman to win back-to-back titles at the Premier 5 level Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open and the Premier Mandatory China Open in Beijing, Garcia hasn’t been able to consistently reproduce that form over the last two seasons, falling from No. 4 in the world to a year-end mark of No. 19 at the end of 2018, while she’s fallen even lower in 2019, dropping to a current ranking of No. 45, which is her lower year-end mark since No. 75 in 2013.
Garcia didn’t win back-to-back matches in her last 11 tournaments of the season, dating all the way back to the grass swing, which was her best month of the year as she won the title in Nottingham and made he quarter-finals in Mallorca.
Garcia beat Barty in their first meeting in the 2017 Wuhan final, but the Australian has won their next two encounters at the 2018 WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai and last month in Wuhan. Again, Barty will be feeling the pressure of leading her country at home in the final, but she’s handled it superbly all season and hasn’t dropped a set in all of her singles ties. Ending the year as the undisputed No. 1, it would be a big surprise if Barty wasn’t able to get the job done here.
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Fed Cup Final Day 1 live streaming, preview and tips – Barty faces Garcia; Tomljanovic makes Australian debut vs Mladenovic
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