Tennis

Belgium slip-sliding in Fed Cup

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BRUSSELS (AP)

Not so long ago, there was Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin dominating women's tennis and turning little Belgium into a force in the sport.

Now, Belgium is facing the prospect of dropping into the third tier of the Fed Cup as the federation is unwilling - or unable - to shell out the money to pick the players' favored surface.

Against Poland in the World Group II playoffs, Belgium chose to play on indoor hardcourt when its players are gearing up for the red clay season in Europe. The switch for one weekend did not sit well.

`'We are preparing for clay and Belgium says hardcourt,'' said Rudi Kuyl, the spokesman for Yanina Wickmayer, who confirmed Tuesday that she won't play against Poland.

In-form Kirsten Flipkens, Belgium's current top player, waited until the last moment before making her decision Tuesday for the April 20-21 best-of-five series, facing the same surface dilemma.

''Confirmation : i DO play fed cup... Wasnt an easy decision!,'' Flipkens said on Twitter.

At No. 23 in the WTA rankings, Flipkens will still be the only top-100 player that fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska and her sister Urszula will face.

It is a far cry from the days when Clijsters and Henin battled each other for No. 1 in the world and, boosted by their play, led Belgium to the Fed Cup title in 2001 and the final in 2006.

In fact, the last time Clijsters played Fed Cup was also the last time Belgium won, beating the United States 4-1 in February 2011. What followed were four straight losses as Belgium dropped from the elite World Group to World Group II, and now the playoffs to stay out of the Europe-Africa continental zone.

Even with the 35th-ranked Wickmayer, it would have been tough going against Poland. Belgium's No. 2 instead will be 181st-ranked Alison Van Uytvanck. An-Sophie Mestach is next at No. 330 in the WTA rankings.

When it came to picking a surface, Walter Goethals, the secretary general of the federation organizing the match, said he was always in a bind.

`'We had to take a decision on business logic two months ago,'' Goethals told The Associated Press. ''We didn't know at the time whether they (Flipkens and Wickmayer) were going to play.''

Since the weather doesn't facilitate playing outdoors in Belgium in mid-April, the federation would have to prepare an indoor clay court, and Goethals said it was simply too expensive.

''I won't mention any prices but in the past, in Fed Cup and Davis Cup, we have lost a lot of money. And we cannot afford that anymore,'' Goethals said.

Wickmayer has a history of back problems, and the surface situation meant she had to pull out, Kuyl said.

''Surface changes can be bad and have affected Yanina before,'' Kuyl said. ''Now her coach is saying, `Sorry, we are preparing clay season and Stuttgart''' - the German indoor clay tournament which starts the day after the Fed Cup weekend.

Another issue is ranking points, Goethals said.

''Fed Cup has none and so it comes second,'' he said.

If Belgium loses to Poland and drops a division, Goethals fears his top players might not want to return. Although that could bring some positives, as well.

''Then we might have to rely on youth and precocious talent,'' he said. ''That is also how Clijsters and Henin pushed through.''

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