The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Stephanie Livaudais, November 12, 2019
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A fitting end to Fed Cup as we know it
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Over the weekend, France took down Australia in a dramatic, down-to-the-wire battle to win the Fed Cup. Although France was technically the favorite here – Australia was going for their first title in 45 years against the higher-ranked France, who’d made the final in 2016 – it was supposed to be Australia’s moment. World No.1 and Grand Slam winner Ashleigh Barty donned the green and gold in Perth in what was supposed to be the crowning jewel of her already-stellar season – but Kristina Mladenovic’s France had other ideas, crashing the Barty Party in front of record crowds in Perth.
There was dancing, there was confetti, there were many, many tears. France captain Julien Benneteau reportedly celebrated so hard he broke his foot. It was all happening.
It was a fittingly dramatic sendoff for the final edition of Fed Cup as we know it, and a celebration of everything that made this format so great. But starting next season, we’ll have a new Fed Cup, thanks to the ITF’s changes to the men’s equivalent event, Davis Cup. Spearheaded by, oddly enough, FC Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and his investment group Kosmos, a complete overhaul to the Davis Cup format was approved in 2018. The goal was to boost participation among the men’s top players, who had all but abandoned the competition – an issue that most of the WTA’s top players didn’t have. In fact, the women seemed to be just an after-thought throughout the negotiations, and it wasn’t until June of this year that the new Fed Cup format was officially adopted, independent of Kosmos, and set to kick off in 2020.
Fed Cup expands the competition format from eight to 20 nations – a change that will surely be a big boost for the smaller federations who don’t have a powerhouse selection of players and the countries without Grand Slams for whom the previous format was stacked in favor. There will be no year-long competition staged over several weeks – the whole tournament will happen in a week, which should improve participation, as Kosmos is betting on.
But under the new format, there will be no home-court advantage. The finals will now be hosted on clay in Budapest, Hungary, a neutral venue until 2022. So scenes like the ones we saw over the weekend in Perth, where record crowds packed the RAC Arena with an atmosphere that makes Fed Cup truly feel like “the World Cup of Tennis” (as Fed Cup likes to market itself), will be the exception rather than the norm.
It’s a shame, because when players talk about matches that “feel like Fed Cup”, it’s always with a wistful smile. That feeling of playing for more than just yourself, so rare in an individual sport like tennis, of playing in front of a rocking stadium chanting your name – it’s the opposite of a typical tennis match atmosphere.
Tour matches don’t come close in capturing the atmosphere of a Fed Cup tie, so why take away the thing that makes Fed Cup special and make it more like the tour? Why let questionable characters from outside of the sport dictate what we in women’s tennis do at one of our most beloved competitions?
This Week in Women’s Tennis
Kristina Mladenovic was an absolute hero for France this weekend, winning all three of her matches against Australia.
But spare a thought for Ash Barty, who was completely crushed after losing in the final doubles match. “It’s bloody tough now,” she told press in Perth, “In a couple of days’ time I think we’ll be alright.”
For Croatia-born Ajla Tomljanovic, it’s been a five-year journey toward representing Australia in Fed Cup for the first time, and she was cleared to play just two weeks before the final. She was absolutely thrilled to get the call up.
After experiencing a Fed Cup final on home soil, the competition’s change in format is even more bittersweet, says Australia captain Alicia Molik.
Nope, Sam Stosur is still not ready to retire.
However, one of my favorite players, Dominika Cibulkova, has officially announced her retirement from tennis.
I highly recommend checking out David Kane’s wonderful chat with Cibulkova, who is apparently working on a memoir.
It’s good to see CiCi Bellis back on the tennis courts. The American has been fighting wrist and elbow injuries for two years and needed four surgeries before making her return this weekend at the Houston WTA Challenger.
Speaking of Americans, 18-year-old French Open semifinalist Amanda Anisimova reportedly inked a huge deal with Nike, “one of the largest ever for a teenager.”
Big news on the coaching front: despite having a great season, World No.2 Karolina Pliskova announced she’s splitting from Conchita Martinez.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands was honored by the NYJTL for her leadership on and off the court.
Tennis Australia is going to have to reckon with Margaret Court’s legacy sooner than it wants to, as this upcoming Australian Open marks the 50th anniversary of the controversial and vocally-homophobic Aussie great’s Grand Slam year.
Finally, the WTA has finally expanded its pension program to include payouts for the pioneering women who built women’s tennis in the 70s and 80s but missed the original 1991 pension cutoff. Next step: the women are now lobbying for the four Grand Slams to match the WTA’s payout.
WTA CEO Steve Simon talks about the tour’s big push into China and the Chinese market.
Tweet of the Week
Five at the IX: Kristina Mladenovic
Kristina Mladenovic carried France to victory in the Fed Cup final and she did it in typical “Kiki” style. These are the kind of moments that Mladenovic is made for: emotions running high, must-win matches, playing for her country on foreign soil. What can I say? She’s French, she has a flair for drama.
On her dominant Day 1 performance, winning in just 72 minutes to earn France’s first point:
MLADENOVIC: “I’ve been playing well for quite some time now. My confidence is there, it was pretty clear.
“I’m also extremely proud of how I handled things, because it’s always a new challenge stepping out on the court out there and opening up such an important final tie.
“I love the stage – the bigger the challenge, the more the pressure, I really fight out there, and really enjoy it. These are moments to remember for a lifetime.”
On her stunning, comeback win over World No.1 Ashleigh Barty:
MLADENOVIC: “To play in front of 13,000 people, to beat the current world No.1 and by far the best player in the world – she’s almost unplayable lately – and not just to win, but the way it happened – I was behind, then 7-6 in the third – it was already a dream come true on a personal note. So it’s natural – tears, emotions, came out.
“But after the handshake I was like, this is not exactly what I want – I want the trophy and for the team to win. I was so proud, personally, but then I tried to regroup, to focus. We didn’t manage to win after the singles and I had to go back there again. So I’m also really proud of this composure, staying there mentally and not being satisfied with two great singles. Now it’s the best reward.
On her mindset getting ready to play the decisive doubles match, just hours after her win over Barty:
MLADENOVIC: “The preparation was insane for me. It was tough to get back on court after such a match with Ashleigh.
“But it’s sport – you think you’re exhausted, and then when you have something that is driving you, it gives you unreal power. It’s mental, it’s the head that is driving everything. Now I’m just so relieved, so proud and happy.”
On avenging the 2016 Fed Cup final, where Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia fell short in the decisive doubles rubber:
MLADENOVIC: “It’s lots of emotions to share this with Caro, after three years ago we failed on the last step of the tie. Today we just wanted to play for a little revenge for ourselves, and it’s just not describable how we feel right now.”
On finally winning her first Fed Cup title:
MLADENOVIC: “It’s been a long journey, it’s been a dream of a kid. I gave some much personally for this achievement in my career, something I wanted – you know, it was on the bucket list.”