On paper it should have been the clash of the titans: Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin against Serena and Venus Williams. Sadly a combination of injury and retirement has meant only one of the biggest names in women’s tennis over the past decade will be on show this weekend, but it just so happens she’s in fine form.
Clijsters will be shouldering the burden of responsibility in Belgium’s Fed Cup by BNP Paribas first round tie against USA in Antwerp this weekend.
The world No. 2 is fresh (well as fresh as anyone can be after travelling half way round the world) from her victory in Melbourne to lay claim to her first Australian Open title and is ready to lead her country into battle against a USA side that rather likes the underdog tag.
The host nation will be without Justine Henin after the 28-year-old announced news of her retirement at the Australian Open, while last year’s Fed Cup runners-up USA are missing the Williams sisters due to injury – foot for Serena and groin for Venus.
But USA has reached the Fed Cup final for the last two years, losing on both occasions to Italy, without the services of either Williams sister.
And American captain Mary Joe Fernandez puts the success of her squad in recent years down to the team spirit in the camp and the versatility of her players: “Everybody can pretty much do it all,” she said.
“It is nice as a captain to have that versatility. We do have our options. We’ll see what we think works best and what the matchups are, like we usually do. It is very nice that we are solid and slowly becoming more experienced. This was a very young team a couple of years ago and they have come a long way.”
USA is likely to employ Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Melanie Oudin in the singles, Liezel Huber in the doubles and Vania King as and when required. Both of Belgium’s top two players are ranked higher than their American counterparts and they can boast to have the form player in women’s tennis in the shape of world No. 2 Clijsters.
For Oudin, playing the Australian Open champion will be a dream come true. “Playing Kim would be a real honor because I grew up watching her,” said Oudin. “She’s always been a great player, an idol to me. Getting to play against her would be pretty cool. I am definitely looking forward to it.”
If the Americans are to succeed in maintaining their fine Fed Cup form – they have reached the semifinals for the last six years – they will have to target Belgium’s No. 2, Yanina Wickmayer. Ranked No. 26, Wickmayer is not going to roll over easily and will be keen to show what she can do in the absence of Henin.
Making up Belgium’s squad are Kirsten Flipkens and another winner Down Under – the Australian Open girls’ singles and doubles champion An-Sophie Mestach.
It might not be the clash of the titans, but it is sure to be a titanic clash.
Follow all the action on www.fedcup.com.