PERTH, Australia - Ash Barty was inconsolable as she stepped onto the presentation dais and was presented her runners-up medal following Australia's Fed Cup final defeat at RAC Arena in Perth.
Entering the weekend unbeaten on a 6-0 run, Barty looked unstoppable on Saturday as she downed Caroline Garcia 6-0, 6-0 in what she described as her best match of the year and in doing so kept Australia's hopes of ending their 45-year drought alive as she levelled the tie 1-1.
But she couldn't do the same on Sunday. Looking confident and strong in the first set of the third rubber, Barty again looked unbeatable as she cruised to a 6-2 opening set win. But with the match in her favour, she failed to secure break point in the eighth game and gave Kristine Mladevonic a chance. It would prove the turning point of the match as she eventually went down 6-2, 4-6, 6-7 in a tiebreak. It would be her first Fed Cup rubber loss since 2017.
Debutant Ajla Tomjlanovic's heroics gave Australia another chance to claim the title that had eluded them for 45-years, with her 6-4, 7-5 fourth rubber win sending it to the deciding doubles match. Barty returned to the court paired with Sam Stosur, but it wasn't to be.
It would have been the perfect end to Barty's year and the perfect Fed Cup send-off for Stosur if they had claimed the victory. Instead, they simply had no answer for Mladevonic who continued her amazing run of the weekend to secure the Fed Cup title 3-2 with the doubles 6-3, 6-4 victory.
"You can see how much it means to all of us, obviously it's bitterly disappointing to be sitting here not with the result we were after," Barty said post match. "But all in all, it's about taking a little bit of perspective and this team and this group of girls, personally I wouldn't want to be sitting here with anyone else, it's been an amazing journey, an amazing time of the year for us.
"To be able to be in the Fed Cup final is something that is very precious, we'll cherish it and it will drive us more for next year.
"I think it's going to be a tough one [to get over], it's something all of us have been looking forward to for six months, so now it's all about resting recovering and reflecting on the year that's been for me.
"For all of us in a Fed Cup specific point of view, the journey that we've been on is just simply remarkable in the last two years, it really has, even though it's bloody tough now, in a couple of days' time I think we'll be ok."
Australia's first Fed Cup final in 26-years, and their ninth final loss since 1993, it was a disappointing pill to swallow as Team Australia faced the media. Stosur and Barty struggled to hold back tears, while team captain Alicia Molik spoke of no regrets from this weekend.
Molik made the decision on Friday to play Tomjlanovic as her second choice singles player, dropping Stosur to just doubles duties. After Tomjlanovic was soundly beaten 6-1, 6-1 on Saturday by Mladevonic, questions swirled whether she would give the 26-year-old a second chance. She backed up her original decision and sent Tomjlanovic out again on day two.
"I don't regret any step of the way, we've had to come together for such a long period of time now, be such a closeknit team, face so much adversity, we've done the last few years," Molik told the media.
"I feel like we were up against it for so much of the time. Even today we fought our way back, got ourselves into the position we wanted to be in, quite frankly, with the last rubber resting on the double.
"But credit to France - gee whiz Kiki Mladevonic showed her true colours today, because I think she carried all the French team on her shoulders. She took it out of our hands I felt."
After 16 years playing Fed Cup, Stosur wasn't able to secure the elusive title in her first final, but she promised this wouldn't be the end of her time on Team Australia.
"I'm not retiring, I'm sticking around for a little time yet," Stosur said when asked about her Fed Cup future.
"For sure, right now it's obviously just really disappointing but I think we do have to take some perspective and realise all the things that we have achieved this year.
"All the times we put on the green and gold what we do for the team, so this is obviously a very hard moment but this is a fantastic team to be a part of and all four of these girls are the future of Fed Cup. I won't be around for 16 more years but these girls may well be, so we've got the future in good hands."
The weekend was the last Fed Cup final in its current format, with the event to be held across just a singular week at Budapest in April 2020. Disappointment that Australia couldn't secure the win in front of their home crowd clearly weighed heavy on the team.
"That's going to be sad," Molik said. "Experiencing a home final [is] the ultimate in your country, unless the format changes we'll never have one of those again.
"This was really, really special, which is probably why it's difficult for all of us to come to grips with losing, because it does mean so much. Playing in front of our home crowd - we love playing in Australia, we love spending time here, we have a wonderful support network and to us it means so much to perform for those who really support us throughout the year."