Ash Barty will try to break a 45-year drought for Australian women’s tennis to cap off her stellar year

Updated November 07, 2019 09:00:46

Australia’s Fed Cup team will not have to look too far for inspiration during this weekend’s final against France in Perth.

Key points:

  • Australia won the Fed Cup seven times from 1964 to 1974, but not once since then
  • Two members of the 1974 team, Dianne Balestrat and Janet Young, will be in the stands this weekend in Perth
  • Ash Barty will lead this year’s team, with Sam Stosur and Ajla Tomljanovic, captained by Alicia Molik

Two members of the last victorious Australian team, Dianne Balestrat (nee Fromholtz) and Janet Young, will be in the stands. Evonne Goolagong Cawley is unable to attend due to a prior commitment.

“I’ve been invited there so I’m really excited about going, to be the last ones to win it and if they do win it, I’m just gonna be jumping up and down,” Balestrat said.

“Janet and I will be there cheering them on and giving them all the confidence that they need.”

45 years and counting

When Australia won the Fed Cup in 1974 there was no reason to believe it would be followed by a title drought that would stretch for 45 years.

Since the inception of the women’s team competition in 1963, Australia won the Federation Cup (as it was known until 1995) on seven occasions — in 1964, 1965, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1973 and 1974.

The unstoppable Margaret Court (nee Smith) won all 20 of her singles matches in the Fed Cup from 1963-1970 and when she stopped playing Fed Cup after 1971, Goolagong Cawley led Australia to triumphs in 1973 and 1974.

Balestrat received a surprise call-up to play in the 1974 Fed Cup, which was played over a week in May on red clay in Italy.

“I was in England with my family at the time when I was called up,” she said.

“I wasn’t supposed to be playing Fed Cup, I was 17 years old, I had played 10 tournaments in Europe. I was asked to come and play in Naples because one of the girls couldn’t play.”

The Albury-born Balestrat won singles matches against Japan, Italy and Great Britain as Australia booked a spot in the final against the USA.

Goolagong beat Julie Heldman in straight sets, and Balestrat lost a tight three-setter against Jeanne Evert (Chris Evert’s younger sister) before the Goolagong Cawley/Janet Young combination won the doubles 7-5, 8-6.

“[It was a] very exciting time, I was just a rookie at the whole thing and that was my first year overseas,” Balestrat said.

“To be chosen for Fed Cup was just such an honour at the time and I was just so excited that we had won.”

Balestrat said it was like a dream being a teenager playing for Australia alongside Goolagong Cawley.

“I played Evonne when I was 14 in a tournament in Tamworth and I was awestruck by her then. I think I got five games out of her and I thought that was really good and I was encouraged to continue [playing the sport],” she said.

“At that time she’d won Wimbledon and she was just like this elite person there, so to see her at the [Fed Cup] and to speak with her … she was just such a lovely person [and] she made me feel very much at ease.”

Four decades apart, but many similarities

Balestrat sees similarities between the 1974 champions and Australia’s 2019 team.

In ’74, Goolagong Cawley won a grand slam — the Australian Open — and the WTA Finals. This year, Barty won the French Open and the WTA Finals.

Goolagong Cawley has mentored Barty and both players are proud of their Indigenous heritage.

“The fact that Ashleigh’s number one in the world, I think Evonne was number one in the world at the time (official rankings started in 1975) and I think we’ve got a really good chance to go the whole way this time,” Balestrat said.

“We’ve got Samantha Stosur who was top four in the world and at any time she can play extremely well and Ash Barty’s just won that tournament in China, the WTA Finals, that was just a fantastic feat.

“She’s got a fantastic all-round game. If you’re watching her, there’s a lot of things she does on the court that the others don’t do. She’s really doing it the right way.”

In a career that lasted almost 20 years, former world number four Balestrat won eight singles titles and finished with career prizemoney of $US1.15 million. Barty picked up a tick under four times that much just for winning the WTA Finals.

“I really think it’s fantastic, I know there was a large group of girls in our era, we worked very hard, we made a lot of appearances for free, we did a lot of cocktail parties to increase the prizemoney,” she said.

“To look at it now, it’s just fantastic and the girls really deserve it.”

Once she had a taste of Fed Cup, Balestrat was hooked. The left-hander played every year from 1974 to 1983 when the team reached seven finals. She said it was a surprise that it had been more than four decades since Australia’s last triumph.

“When we had our era of girls we had at least four in the top 10, so we were very strong, then it sort of petered off a little bit throughout the years, but now we’ve got a strong team again,” she said.

The 63-year-old is a tennis coach in Victoria and said an Australian win in Perth would lead to more juniors taking up the sport.

“I hope if they do win, and even if they don’t win, they get quite a lot of publicity for it because we need to be able to encourage the [junior] girls to play more tennis,” she said.

“To see that Ash Barty’s out there, [Ajla] Tomljanovic, Sam Stosur, [it will] give them some inspiration to see that maybe they could possibly do what the girls are doing out there.”

Balestrat is almost ready to hand over the mantle of being a member of the last Australian team to win the Fed Cup.

“Well yes and no I suppose,” she said.

“We won it so long ago, but yes it would be fantastic if an Australian team would win it and take over our record from so far in the past.

“Forty-five years ago, that’s so long ago, so we’re in line to have some new people take over.”

Topics: tennis, sport, australia

First posted November 07, 2019 07:04:42