By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
ANTWERP, Belgium – Being the underdog is nothing new for the U.S. Fed Cup Team heading into a tie, and neither is facing a team with a top-10 player.
The U.S. was the underdog in its 2010 semifinal tie against Russia and two-time Grand Slam finalist Elena Dementieva and in the final three months ago against Italy and French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.
And now the U.S. is the underdog away against Belgium in its first tie of 2011, with the tall task of defeating world No. 2 and Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters, as well as world No. 26 Yanina Wickmayer. The tie, to be played Feb. 5-6 at the Sportpaleis Antwerp, is expected to have over 10,000 fans in attendance.
U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez knows her team is well-equipped to meet the challenge – and certainly has the experience – which she thinks will only make her team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Melanie Oudin, Vania King and Liezel Huber play better.
"It is always a challenge when you are the underdog, but I think it is something our team really thrives on, and I think it really brings out the best in our team," Fernandez said. "We have been building year after year and tie after tie, and it is just one more experience to get the players to play at their best and get the most out of their games. We will see what happens, but we are looking forward to it.
"Kim had a fantastic Australian Open. She is full of confidence at the moment," she added of Clijsters’ title win in Melbourne last week. "We will go out there and do our best, and we will see what happens. It is a thrill to be able to play Kim in her home country. She is one of the nicest players we have seen. It is exciting but challenging. We have played away quite a few times and have experienced very loud noise and drums."
Seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin was originally on the Belgian roster, as well, but abruptly announced her retirement from tennis last week due to a lingering elbow injury she suffered at Wimbledon last year. World No. 1 junior An-Sophie Mestach and Kirsten Flipkens round out Captain Sabine Appelmans’ roster.
Of the U.S. team’s three singles players – Mattek-Sands, Oudin and King – only Mattek-Sands has faced Clijsters on the WTA Tour, losing a close three-set match to the Belgian in Montreal last August. She is also the only one to have faced Wickmayer, although not since 2008. King played Clijsters just once back in 2006 during Fed Cup.
And they are not shying away from the challenge of facing the four-time Grand Slam champion. Instead, they are relishing it.
Mattek-Sands, the world No. 48 and likely the No. 1 singles player, is looking forward to playing her again and is hoping for the same quality of tennis with a shift in the results.
"We played a night match in Montreal. I was up, but she came back and won it in three," she said. "It was great tennis and disappointing for me, obviously, because I couldn’t close it out. But I am looking forward to playing her again. She is a good friend, a great player, obviously is feeling confident now coming from Australia, but I think it will be fun to play her again."
For Oudin, 19, Clijsters is a player she has long admired and would love an opportunity to compete against her if inserted into the lineup this weekend.
"If I get to play this weekend, it would be a real honor just to get to play her because I grew up watching Kim. She has always been a great player and a great idol to me," Oudin, ranked No. 61, said.
Fernandez and Appelmans will announce their lineups for the weekend's matches during the official draw ceremony on Friday, with Fernandez having lots of versatility with three great singles players and three players – Huber, King and Mattek-Sands – all ranked in the top 15 in doubles.
Clijsters recalled her match against Mattek-Sands in Montreal and has seen how well the U.S. team has performed the past two years, reaching the final both times.
"They perform great when they feel they are part of a team," Clijsters said of the U.S. team. "Mattek-Sands thrives in a situation like this. I had a tough match against her in Canada. I won in three sets, but it was very tough."
Appelmans, a friend of Fernandez’s from their days on the WTA Tour, knows what the U.S. team is capable of and the challenge it presents to her team, as well.
"They are real professionals. They played in the final the last two years with these players," Appelmans said. "They are very strong as a tight team. We certainly won’t take it lightly."