ANTWERP, BELGIUM: On an emotionally charged afternoon in Antwerp’s Sports Palace, Kim Clijsters not only booked Belgium’s place in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinals but also got her hands on a replica trophy for winning the 2001 competition.
A decade after Clijsters, Justine Henin, Els Callens and Laurence Courtois beat Russia for Belgium’s first Fed Cup title, the quartet were reunited with team captain Ivo Van Aken in a special presentation on court before the first reverse singles.
Having just been forced back into retirement by injury, Henin was given a heartfelt reception and spoke of her mixed emotions being here but no longer able to represent her country.
Thereafter, it was left to Clijsters to hold court and the way she started against Bethanie Mattek-Sands suggested she might ease Belgium through. But the match then took on a different complexion as the American, who had pushed Clijsters hard for three sets when they met on tour last year, threatened to do so again.
Playing better than she had on Saturday against Yanina Wickmayer, Mattek-Sands fought admirably to come back from an early break, opening up the court with her powerful forehand and often finishing the point well at the net. And in the first set tiebreak she saved three set points before clinching it 12-10 on her third.
Once Clijsters took control of the second set, though, there was little doubt that the world No. 2 would ultimately go onto win, and after more than two hours play she did so 67(10) 62 61, agreeing afterwards that she had been made to work hard for it.
“Definitely, but I was expecting that when I came out at the start of the match. I played her a few months ago, and she played a really, really tough match, you know a very high level and she did that in the first set today as well.”
Wickmayer then added icing to the Belgian cake by crushing Melanie Oudin 62 60 before Liezel Huber and Vania King prevented a total whitewash by beating Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens and An-Sophie Mestach 63 75 in the doubles.
A semifinal versus Czech Republic in April is Belgium’s reward, and team captain Sabine Appelmans is delighted to have home advantage again: “We are very happy to play in Belgium again. It’s so nice to be able to play in front of a home crowd… a great atmosphere and I think it’s going to be the same thing again when we play the Czech Republic, but that’s going to be very tough.”
USA captain Mary Joe Fernandez was left to reflect on their loss: “Unfortunately we came up against a better team in Belgium. It was really too tough with Kim Clijsters and Yanina Wickmayer, they really were a level above… we had a few openings here and there but we weren’t able to capitalise on them.”
USA now go into the play-off draw on Wednesday.
Kim Clijsters (BEL) - 06/02/2011