When Kim Clijsters turned up in Koksijde on Saturday to watch the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II play-off between Belgium and Poland, home captain Ann Devries would have been forgiven for asking the former world No. 1 if she fancied a game.
It has not been an easy time for Belgian women’s tennis since the retirement of Clijsters. The last time the country won a match in the Fed Cup was when the 29-year-old last played in a 4-1 victory over the USA in February 2011.
And despite valiant efforts from Kirsten Flipkens and the 19-year-old Alison van Uytvanck, they could not prevent a 4-1 defeat by Poland which condemns Belgium to territory which is almost alien to the younger Belgian fans, Europe/Africa Zone Group I for the first time since 1995.
It was just two years ago last weekend that Belgium played a Fed Cup semifinal when they hosted the Czech Republic, narrowly losing out in the doubles decider. Four further defeats since then show that they they are still struggling to find their way in the post-Clijsters and Justine Henin days.
“In Belgium we have a change of generation,” said Devries. “Kim and Justine are not playing anymore. Obviously we still have Kirsten and Yanina Wickmayer but they both have their individual programmes as well so I am not sure how many times they are going to play in the future, especially if it is in the third group.”
If there were to be any positives taken from this weekend, it was the performance of young Van Uytvanck against Agnieszka, an opponent ranked 179 places higher at No. 4. If she can improve her movement to add to her impressive power off the ground, then she has a good chance of being a crucial player for Belgium in years to come.
And although Belgium are now no longer a part of the group of elite nations in Fed Cup, Devries feels that the experience of the zonal competition next year could actually be a good thing for the younger members of her team.
“It is a long time since we have been there but I think it is a good experience for the younger players,” said Devries. “They should try and win there, fight their way up and then they are ready to maybe do something in World Group II as well.”
After a brief foray in World Group II three years ago, Poland return once more thanks to the commitment of the Radwanska sisters. Their efforts in Eilat, Israel earlier this year saw Poland clinch promotion from the notoriously difficult Europe/Africa Zone Group I at the third time of asking and the prospect of World Group tennis is something which Agnieszka is looking forward to.
“That’s why me and Urszula are both here and I am playing Fed Cup every year,” said Agnieszka. “It is a big thing for Poland.”
Although playing a much lower-ranked opponent in Van Uytvanck, Urszula can take confidence from the way she clinched victory for her country on day two, the first time she has had the opportunity to win a tie for Poland on the singles court.
In the past 12 months, the 22-year-old has established herself on the WTA tour, rising more than 60 places in the rankings to No. 32, and her improvement, coupled with the presence of her older sister, make Poland a team that are capable of progressing further beyond World Group II, although captain Tomasz Wiktorowski is hoping for some luck in July's draw.
“Probably a lot depends on the draw” said Wiktorowski of his side’s future prospects. “I didn’t even take a look who was playing because we were really focused on this tie. But, as far as I know, there are a couple of teams which I don’t want to say are on our level but are in our range for sure.”