Belgium win Fed Cup

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The Independent Online

The absence of the Americans didn't dim Belgium's first Fed Cup title one bit.

"It would have been great if they were here, but they weren't," said Justine Henin as she and Kim Clijsters took rapid–fire two–set victories over Russia here in today's final on indoor clay in the Spanish capital.

"We were the favorites here but we had to prove it on the court and we did it. It's a great victory for a little country with two young players and a great team."

Henin pulverized Nadia Petrova 6–0, 6–3 in 50 minutes. Clijsters, taking her first set in 14 minutes, dispatched Elena Dementieva 6–0, 6–4 in 49 minutes in one of the most lopsided finals in history.

With two of tennis' youngest stars, Belgium was the favorite to claim the equivalent of the men's Davis Cup from the moment the two–time defending champion Americans – 17 titles overall – withdrew last month citing security worries.

Clijsters, too young in some countries to drink champagne legally, broke into a sparkling smile as she uncorked a magnum and sprayed fans, teammates and the Russians – losers in all four of their Fed Cup finals.

"I've seen it a few times on TV and I really wanted to do it once in my life," she said. "I've never done it before. It was nice. I didn't get wet, but I made everyone else wet."

Belgium won Pool A in the round–robin portion of the tournament to reach the final with victories over Spain, Australia and Germany. Russia was 3–0 with victories over France, Argentina and the Czech Republic.

The easy victories were as disappointing as the tiny crowd estimated at 2,000 – about 200 Belgians – that watched the final. It was even smaller when Russia won the meaningless doubles as Petrova and Elena Likhovtseva defeated Els Callens and Laurence Courtois 7–5, 7–6 (2).

Spanish and Fed Cup officials blamed the scant turnout on the absent United States, a final without the home Spanish team, and a venue isolated in northern Madrid that is being floated as a potential site for the 2012 Olympics.

Clijsters said she was "pretty surprised there were that many people." Henin, however, admitted disappointment at the attendance and atmosphere of the five–day event.

"It would be better for sure if we were playing in Belgium or if there were a lot of people, but that's the format now. It's a little bit sad."

Fed Cup officials, acknowledging the event's problems, are changing the format next season and returning to a four–team instead of an eight–team final. It will be the fifth format change in five years.

Henin, playing the Russian for the first time, ripped through the first set in 21 minutes, breaking the nervous Petrova three times en route to 6–0.

Petrova, 19, said she was distracted by the opening ceremony and didn't have time to warm up. "Maybe it just wasn't my day. I was ready to play, but when I came out on the court everything went wrong."

Asked if having high–profile Anna Kournikova on the team would have helped, Petrova shrugged. Kournikova played during the Fed Cup in exhibition matches in South Africa.

"I don't know, I don't know," she said. "I would say it wouldn't make us any stronger. It would be the same story."

"She (Kournikova) has been injured for so many months. You saw her coming back and she couldn't win a match even against young Russians who were three years younger than she is. ... But I think she will be back. She is very strong mentally and a very strong person.

Clijsters' victory over 20–year–old Dementieva was almost a duplicate. Dementieva said she had a blistered foot but admitted Russia missed an opportunity.

"I think we had a good chance today. When we played the U.S. (1999 final) there was no chance for us to win. Today we had some chances but we didn't use them."

Henin, 19, and Clijsters, 18, are two of tennis' most promising young players with Clijsters ranked No. 5 by the WTA and Henin No. 7. Henin reached the Wimbledon final this year and Clijsters was the losing finalist in the French Open.

Dementieva thinks they may go higher.

"You never know about the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena), what they are going to do next year – whether they are going to play or not," Dementieva said. "I don't know about them. I think Kim and Justine have a very good chance of being No. 1 or No. 2 in he world."

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