ANTWERP, BELGIUM: It is five years since Belgium last reached the semifinals of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas. Back in 2006 a win at home to Russia in the first round was followed by another at home to USA before an injured Justine Henin was forced to pull up just short in the deciding doubles of the final against Italy in Charleroi.
Kim Clijsters was a spectator that day and this time the roles were reversed. A moving on-court presentation to Clijsters, Henin and the rest of the 2001 Fed Cup winning team, before play started on Sunday, ended with Henin speaking of her mixed emotions to be present but no longer on the team having just been forced back into retirement by injury.
Given a rapturous reception by the 12,000 fans packed into the Antwerp Sports Palace, Henin said, "I'm very glad to be here, but it's very difficult because I would prefer to be wearing the red and black (team) outfit...Thank you for all your support. I will never forget the one big adventure I had in tennis. It's full of nice memories and it's a nice symbol that I receive the Fed Cup trophy at this time. Thank you for all your confidence in me and your love."
Clijsters, who on Saturday followed up her Australian Open triumph with an emphatic victory over Melanie Oudin to give Belgium a 2-0 first day lead following Yanina Wickmayer’s fine win against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, then sought to put Belgium through to the next round.
But it took her more than two hours to do so as Mattek-Sands contributed impressively to the most competitive match of the weekend by winning a first set 12-10 in the tiebreak. Clijsters was quick to take control thereafter, though, and that was that.
Wickmayer, already a force to be reckoned with on the tour and in Fed Cup, notched up her thirteenth singles win in the competition and eighth in a row by trouncing Oudin in the fourth rubber, before the Americans maintained some pride by winning the doubles.
So looking ahead, even without Henin from now on, the Belgium team which also includes Kirsten Flipkens and junior star An-Sophie Mestach, is a major force to be reckoned with while Clijsters continues to play. But she is well aware that even with home advantage against the Czechs in April they will be difficult to beat.
“We look forward to it. We’re all excited to play Fed Cup and to be playing this tie in Belgium and the next tie in Belgium, I mean it’s obviously always an advantage but it’s going to be tough against the Czech Republic. Two lefties, Safarova and Kvitova who played, and girls who have a lot of experience, beaten a lot of top players already, it’s going to be a tough one.”
If Belgium reach the final, though, then they will have to travel either to Italy or Russia for November’s title-decider. Ten years ago Clijsters, Henin and Co beat Russia in a best-of-three match final on neutral ground in Madrid, but winning best-of-five away to either nation for a second title would be an even greater achievement.