France and Australia are tied at one match apiece after Kristina Mladenovic and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty recorded lopsided victories here Saturday on the opening day of the best-of-five Fed Cup final.
Mladenovic took the court first at RAC Arena in this west-coast city and silenced the home crowd with a dominating 6-1, 6-1 win over Croatian-born Ajla Tomljanovic.
The 40th-ranked Frenchwoman raced out to a 3-0 lead thanks to her aggressive baseline game and timely net approaches, although a double fault on break point in the fourth game allowed her Australian opponent to get on the scoreboard.
Mladenovic, however, kept the pressure on Tomljanovic's service games and earned her third break of the match when the Australian sent a forehand long to fall behind 4-1.
A big key to the Frenchwoman's dominance was her strong return of serve, which she leveraged to take advantage of her opponent's weak serving and clinch the fourth set with yet another service break.
Early in the second set, Mladenovic struck a forehand return of serve winner to secure a fifth straight break and take a commanding 6-1, 2-0 lead. She then broke serve yet again two games later to grab a 4-0 advantage.
Although Tomljanovic held serve for the only time in the match to make the score 5-1, Mladenovic finished off the victory one game later when the Australian sent a backhand return over the baseline.
"I love this kind of event - the bigger the pressure it is, the more special the event," Mladenovic said in an 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."
In the second match of the day, Barty knew she needed to respond and did so emphatically with a shocking 6-0, 6-0 rout of former top-five player Caroline Garcia.
Known for her complete game and variety of shot, Barty can at times donate too many points with unforced errors but she was particularly stingy in that phase of the game on Saturday.
The 45th-ranked Garcia struggled to find ways to win points and was forced to take risks by coming forward, allowing Barty to showcase her underrated athleticism, defensive skills and counter-punching.
She took a 4-0 lead in the first set when she struck a forehand passing shot on the baseline on break point.
Barty's always-reliable service game also was ultra-sharp on Saturday, with the Australian striking one of her eight aces to clinch a 5-0 advantage.
One game later, Barty won a back-and-forth game that went to multiple deuces before wrapping up the opening set with a backhand-slice, passing-shot winner.
The match continued to be one-way traffic in the second set, with Garcia either being punished for moving forward or watching winners bounce past her if she opted to merely keep the ball in the court.
Finally, at the 56-minute mark, the contest mercifully ended when the Frenchwoman dumped a forehand in the net.
"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," Barty said in an on-court interview afterward.
The Fed Cup final will continue on Sunday with the reverse singles (Barty v. Mladenovic and Garcia v. Tomljanovic) and, if necessary, a deciding doubles rubber pitting Barty and Sam Stosur against Mladenovic and Garcia.
Although the world No. 1 Barty will be the favorite in the third rubber in front her home fans, Mladenovic, a former top-10 player, handily won their last match - a 6-2, 6-3 victory at the Italian Open on clay. That victory came just weeks before the Australian captured her maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in Paris.
If the Fed Cup final comes down to the doubles, it would be a blockbuster encounter involving four players who are all Grand Slam champions in that category.
Australia is the third-most successful country (after the United States and the Czech Republic) in the history of the Fed Cup, women's tennis' premier international team competition.
The green and gold have won seven titles overall, although they have not won a championship since 1974.
France has won two Fed Cup titles - in 1997 and 2003. EFE-EPA