In her speech at the official pre-tie dinner on Thursday night, Belgian Fed Cup captain Sabine Appelmans made a confession: The announcement that a place called Bydgoszcz would host this World Group II contest had sent her team clambering for Google.
But on arrival, Appelmans was happy to report, they found a charming sports-mad town with an excellent indoor stadium beside a frozen river. And, as anticipated, a dangerous Polish team spearheaded by world No.9 Agnieszka Radwanska.
Both sides have plenty to play for on the hard courts of the Hala Sportowo Widowiskowa ‘Luczniczka’. The Poles are intent on busting their way through to the World Group for the first time under the current format, while the visitors are desperate for a shot at promotion in April as well – not least because Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are in the wings. Those superstars might not be present this weekend, but it’s hard to deny a sense that the 2001 champions belong in the elite.
Wickmayer still the ‘One’
Had Clijsters come to Poland, the Belgians would have been firm favourites. The US Open champion’s absence makes the outcome much harder to predict, but the good news for Appelmans is that she still has one of the hottest players around at her disposal, in the form of Yanina Wickmayer.
This time last year Wickmayer led her country into battle against the Slovaks in Bratislava, and not unexpectedly the Belgians ended up in a relegation play-off. Since then, though, the 20-year-old has won three titles on the WTA Tour, reached the semis at the US Open and jumped over 50 ranking places to No.15 in the world – still higher than Clijsters, in fact.
“I have a lot more experience than last year, have played plenty of matches and learned so much,” said Wickmayer, who has certainly shown her ability to handle pressure in recent months. “That will help me to approach the matches this weekend and I’m really excited to get going.”
Wickmayer will be ably backed by Kirsten Flipkens, who is also coming off her best season to date. Back in 2003 Flipkens won the Wimbledon and US Open juniors and was crowned ITF Junior World Champion. Now aged 24, she is finally coming into her own on Tour, last month hitting a new high of No. 71 in the rankings.
“A lot has changed in the last 12 months,” Appelmans agreed. “I remember last year Yanina arrived back from Australia with no confidence, having not won any matches. This time she won the tournament at Auckland and played an incredible match against Justine. Kirsten is also much more confident. It’s great for Belgian tennis.”
Marta Domachowska (POL) v Yanina Wickmayer (BEL)
Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) v Kirsten Flipkens (BEL)
The Polish team, which beat Japan in the play-offs to book their ticket out of Europe/Africa Zone, is just as determined to progress. Although Radwanska was beaten by her nemesis, Francesca Schiavone, in the third round at the Australian Open, she says she is feeling good, and unhindered by the effects of surgery on a finger during the off-season.
“For sure it’s going to be tough – Wickmayer has been playing great tennis and is Top 20 now as well,” said Radwanska. “Of course there is some pressure but I think the fans will help us and I hope we can put on some high-level matches.”
Radwanska’s younger sister, Urszula, is the Polish No.2 in the computer rankings but has been sidelined by a back injury; taking her place is Marta Domachowska. The 24-year-old has been as high as No. 37, so is a much more accomplished player than her current station of No. 135 would suggest. However, her only match this year has been a first round qualifying loss in Melbourne, so she is something of an unknown quantity.
Indeed, the home side’s best shot might come if they can ensure Sunday’s doubles rubber is live. Klaudia Jans and Alicja Rosolska are doubles specialists who play the Tour together, week in, week out, and have a couple of titles to show for it. They should be too savvy for Belgian youngsters An-Sophie Mestach and Sophie Oyen – but of course Appelmans could choose to make a switch.
“It’s a new experience for us, playing at this level in such a big facility in front of 6,000 Polish fans,” observes Polish captain Tomasz Wiktorowski. “There’s a bit of stress associated with that, but I think we are managing it.”
Saturday - Play starts at 15:00 (14:00 GMT)
Sunday - Play starts at 12:00 (11:00 GMT)
Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) v Yanina Wickmayer (BEL)
Marta Domachowska (POL) v Kirsten Flipkens (BEL)
Klaudia Jans / Alicja Rosolska (POL) v An-Sophie Mestach / Sofie Oyen (BEL)