Henin-Less Belgians No Longer Runaway Favorites

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57051364When U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez anno

unced her four starters for the Feb. 5-6 Fed Cup quarterfinal in Belgium, the second-year U.S. captain was in the unenviable position of having to face both Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, not to mention Yanina Wickmayer, in the hostile indoor hard-court environs of the Sportpaleis Antwerp.

With not a Williams sister in sight (Venus pulled up lame in her third-round Aussie Open matchup with Germany’s Andre Petkovic; Serena continues to nurse the foot injury that’s kept her away from the game since Wimbledon), Fernandez would go with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Melanie Oudin, Liezel Huber and Vania King.

Not much sizzle, but hardly a group of pushovers either. Last year, the 25-year-old Mattek-Sands became the first American in Fed Cup history to win two consecutive live rubbers on the final day of competition as she helped the U.S. clinch a spot in the final. Despite her recent struggles, Oudin, 19, seems to rise to the occasion when playing for her country, and earned the lone point for the U.S. in the ’10 final when she beat reigning Roland Garros champ Francesca Schiavone in straight sets. Huber, 34, has won five of six career Fed Cup doubles matches; and King, who will turn 22 the week of the Fed Cup tie, is coming off Slam doubles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

But despite their on-court accomplishments, on paper, the Americans looked to be clear underdogs against the homestanding Belgians. That is, until Henin unexpectedly announced her retirement on Jan. 26, one day after Fernandez had named her roster.

Suddenly, things don’t look quite as gloomy. Clijsters is Clijsters, there’s not much you can do about that. You can all but put pencil her in for two points in single. But the Huber/King combo gives the U.S. the upper hand in doubles, and despite kicking off the year with a run to the Auckland final, Wickmayer hasn’t exactly been tearing the cover off the ball since her coming out party at the ’09 U.S. Open, where she reached the semis. Regardless of the outcome, the U.S. is guaranteed to play April 16-17 — against the Slovak Republic vs. Czech Republic winner if they’re victorious; or in the World Group Playoff if they lose.

There’s another interesting backstory to watch here, too. Time is running out for the Williamses. Neither Venus nor Serena has played Fed Cup since ’07. However, both cherish the Olympic experience. If they’re planning on playing in London in 2012, in accordance with ITF eligibility requirements, they must make themselves available to play at least two Fed Cup ties in the next year. Which begs the question: Will Henin’s absence prove a boon for the U.S. in February, while simultaneously helping the Williams sisters buy some more time?