Belgium in the unfamiliar position of favourites

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The Independent Online

Belgium is the favourite in this year's Fed Cup and Justine Henin can't quite believe it.

"It will be a little bit strange in the beginning for us," said Henin as the eight–team final opens on Wednesday without the defending two–time champion Americans. With Henin ranked No. 7 by the WTA and teammate Kim Clijsters No. 5, Belgium is the only team in the field with two players in the top 10.

"I think we are just one of the teams ... We don't believe in our heads we are the favourites. In Fed Cup you can't say."

A country of only 11 million, Belgium more than pulls its weight in soccer. But in women's tennis, it is suddenly producing more top players per capita than almost anyone else.

It's even getting a cult following, which could increase if Belgium wins its first ever Fed Cup.

Clijsters expects a hardcore group of 20 Belgians to be on hand in the Spanish capital Wednesday when they open play against Germany. In Wednesday's two other round–robin matches on clay, Russia faces the Czech Republic and Spain plays Australia.

"We always have this little group that travels with us," Clijsters said. "They came to Las Vegas (2000 Fed Cup final) ... so they'll be here."

"There just fans that always travel – fanatics."

The field is divided into two, four–team groups with the two leaders playing in Sunday's final. Belgium, Germany, Spain and Australia face off in one group with France, Russia, Argentina and the Czech Republic in the other.

Germany replaced the Americans, who withdrew because of security concerns following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

France, with No. 9–ranked Amelie Mauresmo, is the only other team with a top–10 player and the favorite to face the Belgians in the final.

"I think this is unbelievable," said Henin, 19, who barged on to the tennis stage this season by reaching the finals at Wimbledon before losing to Venus Williams. She also lost to teammate Clijsters in the French Open semifinals.

"Maybe we will not have this kind of team for 10 years, but it's nice for a little country to have a time like this. For a little country to have two players in the top 10 is a dream ... for all the Belgian people."

Clijsters, 18, has had a similar year. She fell in the French Open final to Jennifer Capriati – the first Belgian woman to play in that final – and reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

"We always have to be individuals and compete against each other, so it's great to be on the same team and compete together," Clijsters said.

Clijsters described the soaring interest in tennis in Belgium as "amazing" and said club memberships were up by "40 to 50 percent" since she and Henin started winning.

Belgium's main problem may be five–time champion Spain. The two play Saturday, and Spanish veterans Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez–Vicario are always dangerous on clay – and before a home crowd.

Clijsters defeated Sanchez–Vicario last week in the quarterfinals of Tour Championships 7–5, 6–1.

"Every match is different and besides, we've never played those two (Clijsters and Henin) on clay," Sanchez–Vicario said.

Security around the venue for the Fed Cup final – already stepped up despite the absent US team – seems sure to get tighter. A car bomb went off Tuesday about 2 miles from the site on the outskirts of northern Madrid. About 100 people were injured with the explosion blamed on the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

The bomb had no connection with tennis, but is sure to heighten fears and could hurt already lagging interest without the marquee U.S. team.

"Tickets sales haven't been as much as we'd hoped for, but like in Munich (WTA Tour Championships) last week, we anticipate there will be a big walk–up crowd," said Debbie Jevans, executive director of the Fed Cup.

The center court for the event holds 4,500 with a 1,500–seat No. 2 court.

The Americans could face expulsion from next year's event and a fine when the ITF board of directors meets Nov. 24–25 in Dublin.

However, Jevans said it seemed more likely there would be a lesser penalty – or no penalty – imposed.

"There's not a precedent ... because this is the first time we've had this in a final," she said. "Everybody is disappointed by the fact that the U.S. team isn't here. Having said that, one is very respectful of the climate there is after the terrorist attacks."

France made the only roster change on Tuesday, replacing Nathalie Dechy with Virginie Razzano.

In play Thursday: France vs. Czech Republic, Germany vs. Australia, Russia vs. Argentina. On Friday: Spain vs. Germany, Belgium vs. Australia, Russia vs. France, Czech Republic vs. Argentina. Only two matches are set for Saturday: Belgium vs. Spain, France vs. Argentina.

The absence of the defending champion United States has left the Fed Cup with only seven players ranked in the WTA's top 20. In addition to the Belgians: France's Mauresmo (9), Nathalie Tauziat (13) and Sandrine Testud (11); Russia's Elena Dementieva (15); Spain's Sanchez–Vicario (17).

Five Americans are ranked in the top 10.