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By Richard Pagliaro - Fed Cup champion Belgium will begin defense of its title when it hosts Australia in the first round of the 2002 Fed Cup. The 2002 Fed Cup draw was announced today in London. All first-round ties will be played the weekend of April 27-28th, 2002.

The United States, which withdrew from the 2001 final due to concerns over safety and security in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America, is seeded first and will host Austria. The U.S. may face a fine from the International Tennis Federation, the governing body of Fed Cup, for its withdrawal.

Some top players, including Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo, have been critical of the Fed Cup format. Despite winning the Fed Cup in 1999 and 2000, the United States was not selected to host the 2001 final. The decision to stage the final in Madrid, where attendance was sparse, rather than the U.S. frustrated Davenport, who declined to play in the final before the U.S. withdrew.

"We were told as the United States we were going to host it again, then the ITF every year has changed the format, changed the site, done everything to screw Fed Cup up," said Davenport, who has a 21-2 record in Fed Cup play. "So I said I wasn't going to play. I don't know why the other players decided not to play and why the US didn't send a team. They could have made a statement, but I wasn't going to be there even if they did send a team."

As the smallest nation in the event, Belgium earned its biggest win in the Fed Cup final held on November 11th. Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin both scored convincing singles wins to power Belgium to its first Fed Cup championship in history today with a victory over Russia before a Madrid crowd estimated at less than 2,500 spectators.

The seventh-ranked Henin defeated Nadia Petrova 6-0, 6-3 in a 50-minute rout and the fifth-ranked Clijsters by crushing Elena Dementieva 6-0, 6-4 in a 49-minute mismatch to lead Belgium to its first Fed Cup title.

"We won the Fed Cup without the Americans," Henin said. "It would have been great if they were here, but they weren't. 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."

In an effort to strengthen Fed Cup's future, the ITF is revisiting its past with format changes for 2002. Under the new format, the Fed Cup World Group will expand from eight nations to 16 nations. The eight winners emerging from the first round will move into the quarterfinals held in July, while first-round losers are relegated to playoff matches to retain their spot in the World Group.

The World Group competition will consist of two weekends of home-and-away play with the top four nations advancing to the finals, which will be contested in one country during one week. Each World Group tie will consist of four singles and one doubles match — the format Fed Cup formerly followed before changing to two singles and one doubles match this year.

"Fed Cup is the world's largest international team competition for women, and, as such, has a status in women's sport that is unequalled," said ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti. "After the bankruptcy of our partners, ISL, the ITF looked at some of the changes to the competition that we had made at their request. The Fed Cup Committee, in consultation with many of our member nations, decided that an amended format would strengthen Fed Cup and make it more attractive to players and to sponsors. Fed Cup will be 40 years old in 2003 and we want to celebrate that important anniversary with a strong, meaningful competition that showcases the very best of women's tennis."

<br />Fed Cup World Group 2002 Draw

First Round — April 27-28, 2002

<ul type="square">[*]Austria at (1) United States [*]Czech Republic at Croatia [*]Hungary at Spain [*]Russia at Germany [*]Switzerland at Slovak Republic [*]France at Argentina [*]Sweden at Italy [*]Australia at (2) Belgium[/list]
 
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