Tennis

As Australia sets itself for its first Fed Cup final since 1993, team captain Alicia Molik reflects on her own on-court highs and lows and assesses what makes world No. 1 Ash Barty so special. By Linda Pearce.

Alicia Molik eyes Fed Cup glory

Alicia Molik urges on her charges Ash Barty and Sam Stosur during the Fed Cup world group semi-final in Brisbane in April.
Credit: Chris Hyde / Getty Images

Alicia Molik is discussing the transition to life after competitive tennis when, right on cue, her seven-year-old son, Yannik, approaches with an Australia Post catalogue and a request. For a mobile phone, no less; perhaps like the one his mum has to her ear. Molik steers Yannik gently towards the catalogue’s coloured-pencil section, explains she’s busy talking, and the adult conversation resumes.

For Molik this is a particularly hectic time. In her adopted home town of Perth, the 38-year-old has returned from TV commentary duties at the season-ending WTA Finals in China to don her green-and-gold hat as captain of a Fed Cup team preparing for its first final since 1993. This time the Australians go in with a world No. 1 in Ash Barty. Their opponent at the RAC Arena in the Western Australian capital is France, and the host’s title drought is 45 years.

A format overhaul for what is the world’s biggest women’s team sports competition in terms of participating countries means that – just like its controversially revamped men’s equivalent, the Davis Cup – this is the end of the home-and-away Fed Cup finals as we’ve known them. Instead, for the three years from 2020, 12 of the 108 competing nations will qualify for World Cup-style finals in Budapest. For now, though, Australia’s participation in the swansong that Molik describes as “a really sad day” for women’s tennis is also a happy testament to Barty’s excellence – last Sunday she pocketed the biggest pay cheque in tennis history – and the nation’s improved depth. In Molik’s too-brief playing career that carried her to world No. 8 and a 2004 Olympic singles bronze medal, plus two grand slam doubles titles and three finals in mixed, Fed Cup ambitions were among those left unfulfilled.

Rewind to 2008, and a quiet afternoon at the Royal South Yarra Tennis Club. Following a debilitating struggle with a middle-ear condition, Molik announced – to me and one other journalist – her (first) retirement from tennis. “Yeah, that was a miserable time,” recalls the sunny character whose 2009 comeback was restricted by injury, before marriage to Tim Sullivan, pregnancy and a permanent exit all came with a rush in 2011. Molik insists she started out with no greater ambition than to reach the top 100 and remains proud of a childhood so “normal” that, right up until moving to the tennis stream of the Australian Institute of Sport in Melbourne at age 17, she practised only once a day, after school. But despite a resolute lack of bitterness she still suffers the occasional “what if” moment.

“I still often think, ‘Wow, was I ever good enough to win a grand slam?’ and, yes, one Australian Open I felt good enough,” she muses. “That was in 2005, and that’s why you train so hard and you give up so much is to feel like you are a genuine contender in the biggest events in the world. But what my career provided me with is a real work ethic and a real ability to push through a lot of hurdles. I’m still involved. A lot of tennis players want to walk away from it, but it’s a big part of my life. It’s something I still love doing. I still love being at my local tennis club [Cottesloe] and meeting people there and being part of social structure around tennis I think is really important. If it’s in you, it’s in you.”

The year everything changed, 2005, was both the best and worst of times. Molik had beaten Sam Stosur to win the Sydney International, then toppled Venus Williams to become the first local woman since 1988 to reach the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park. A top 10 debut assured at age 24, Molik lost in heartbreaking fashion on Australia Day to Lindsay Davenport, 9-7 in the third set, before going on to share the AO’s doubles crown with Svetlana Kuznetsova.

“I remember that as probably the best time in my life,” Molik says of early 2005, and the Williams match, specifically. “To play such an iconic identity, and to be on the rise, as well, where people know your name, you’re playing great tennis, that was a really memorable occasion for me. I was sitting at No. 8, and I was very much looking forward to eyeing off three or four spots in front of me. I think if you’re in single digits you’re always in the running to be vying for slams.”

But, then came the vestibular neuritis that affected her balance, vision and mobility. Later that year, Molik took a long break. She returned, but was never quite the same. Then she retired, before coming back – unranked – one last time, and, with Sullivan for company on a fun farewell tour, clawed her way back inside the top 90. Had motherhood not arrived when it did, Molik would have continued to play, despite the chronic elbow issue that restricted her training. She could stomach the losing; it was the inability to play at the level she once could that was hardest. “As much as I still loved it, I felt like I had my limitations, and maybe [was] a smaller shadow of myself in certain areas in my game or movement.”

She is grateful to have had something to throw herself into so soon after leaving the all-consuming, regimented daily athlete’s routine. “It’s so narrow that you’re navigating your way in a new world again, you’re starting over, you’re not just the tennis player, you’ve got to find your way in I guess a normal life.” Daughter Mieke arrived as a sibling for Yannik in 2014, with the tennis-oblivious “school mums” having provided both an expanded social circle and some perspective.

“I wish I knew when I was playing that the majority of people out there don’t care about whether you’re winning or losing. You put so much self-worth and importance on that aspect, and most people don’t know that there’s a tournament going on in Luxembourg or Beijing,” she says. “It’s really fantastic having that perspective … I wish now that I’d never taken losses as hard. At times it was hard for me to get out of my room for the rest of the day, or that night you’d have room service and feel sorry for yourself, you wouldn’t want to see or talk to anyone. Looking back, those really tough days are no big deal. I guess I wish I didn’t stress or worry as much before matches, or get as nervous, because at times it’s crippling. Or it was crippling for me.”

Pro basketball had always been the back-up plan for the 182-centimetre Molik, and her deep love of the team environment is one shared by Stosur, still, and Barty as the leader of the current generation. Molik is proud of the patriotic Queenslander’s Fed Cup commitment even as her ranking has soared, and marvels at not just Barty’s unprecedented 6-0 Fed Cup record this year, but what she calls the “wow” moment she sees during every match or practice.

“I think that defines Ash as a player and sets her apart: she has an exceptional ability to come up with something pretty special when it matters the most,” says Molik, who has also noticed a calmness and confidence under pressure, whatever the situation. “She has so many skills that set her apart from every other female tennis player. Her ability to adapt on court to the opponent she’s playing is I think greater than anyone else out there at the moment.”

With Barty in the starring role this weekend at RAC Arena, Molik’s will continue to be part-coach/mentor/mum/sounding board, both at courtside and beyond. Certainly, one of many examples she sets is the ability to find post-tennis fulfilment while still remaining in the game but no longer being measured by wins and losses. “You don’t win or lose as a parent and you don’t always win or lose as a Fed Cup captain [a position she has held since 2013]. Or maybe on a couple of days a year for the ties you do,” says Molik, before the biggest of her playing and captaincy career. “It’s more about the process, the journey, giving everything you can. That’s the part about life that I enjoy now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Sideline weapon". Subscribe here.

Linda Pearce
is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.