By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
ANTWERP, Belgium – The U.S. Fed Cup Team knew heading to Antwerp for its 2011 quarterfinal tie that it was going to be a tough assignment to defeat a strong Belgian team, which included four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters.
The underdog role was nothing new for U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez’s team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Melanie Oudin, Liezel Huber and Vania King, nor was pulling out upsets. However, while each player competed to the best of her ability and fought to the last point against Belgium, they were unable to score the upset this time.
Clijsters provided the clinching victory Sunday in the third singles rubber as she rallied from losing a first set tiebreak to send Belgium to the Fed Cup Semifinals with a 6-7 (10), 6-2, 6-1 victory over Mattek-Sands that gave the Belgian team an insurmountable lead in the best-of-five series in front of over 10,000 fans.
Yanina Wickmayer, the world No. 26, then defeated Melanie Oudin 6-2, 6-0 in the fourth singles rubber before King and Huber defeated Kirsten Flipkens and An-Sophie Mestach 6-3, 7-5 in the doubles match to make the final score 4-1 in favor of Belgium.
Belgium held a 2-0 lead over the U.S. after the first day of play behind singles victories from Clijsters over Oudin and Wickmayer over Mattek-Sands.
This is only the third time the U.S. has lost a Fed Cup first round tie in its history and the first time since 2002. It is also the first time the U.S. Fed Cup Team has lost back-to-back ties in its history after losing in the 2010 Fed Cup Final last November. The U.S. now moves into a World Group Playoff in April, with its opponent to be determined on Wednesday. Belgium advances to play the Czech Republic in the semifinals in April.
Fernandez credited Clijsters and Wickmayer’s outstanding play for a well-deserved victory.
"Belgium was the better team by far with Kim and Yanina. It was really a level above," she said. "It was a great effort (from our team) but they were just too good."
Clijsters, the world No. 2 and reigning Australian Open and US Open champion, took an early lead in the first set Sunday but Mattek-Sands broke back two games later to bring the set back on serve and then grabbed the lead with a break at 3-2.
In contrast to her opening match Saturday against Wickmayer, in which she lost a second set tiebreak, Mattek-Sands opened the match moving well and was extremely aggressive and sharp with her shots, with especially effective net play and mixed up her shot selection.
"I knew I had to play very well to stick with her, she is obviously on a high right now from winning in Australia," Mattek-Sands said. "I had to come out confident and playing aggressive."
Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 48, served for the first set up 5-4 but Clijsters fought back, rallying to earn the break when the American hit a shot long after playing some good defense.
The first set progressed to the tiebreak, which remained close throughout. Clijsters had three set points in the tiebreak but Mattek-Sands was able to save them all, including earning one at 10-9 after hitting one of several fantastic lobs in the match. But the Belgian then hit a backhand into the net to bring it to 10-10 on her serve and then a shot into the net to give Mattek-Sands her third set point.
And this time the American closed it out and earned the first set, which lasted over an hour, when Clijsters hit a shot long.
"I knew that I was not doing much wrong in that first set. I think she was really overplaying me in the rallies and a couple of times if I tried to go with the rally with her," Clijsters said. "Especially with that down of the line shot, she really changed directions a lot. She is a gutsy player; she likes to take risks that you usually don’t see on a tennis court."
However, Clijsters was able to regroup, adjusted and took control of her service games in the second set, only facing break points in her final service game of the second, which she was able to fight off to send the match to the third. She closed out the match then on her fourth match point with a break after Mattek-Sands hit a shot long.
"I was telling myself, ‘Just hang in there, be a little more aggressive from the return onwards and make her work, let her think, let her make some unforced errors’ and not let her stay in that groove she had in the first set," Clijsters said. "When you feel your opponent is kind of over pressuring you like she did in the first set it was up to me to come out in that second set and to try to just be one step ahead of her every time and I was able to do that.
"I think the first shot after my serve and the first shot from my return were extremely important today," she added. "I made some mistakes, in that second and third set but I was going for it a little more, I was searching for the lines I was being a little more aggressive."
For the match, Clijsters hit 27 winners to 44 unforced errors to 33 winners and 76 unforced errors for Mattek-Sands.
Looking forward Fernandez only sees her team continuing to grow and improve, just as it has done in the past two years since she took over as captain.
"I am proud of them. It is about competing and doing the best that you can," she said of her team. "We are the underdogs every time and I think we are going to continue to be the underdogs for awhile but it is about learning and getting better and I think they have come a long way."