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By STEPHEN WADE<br />AP Sports Writer

MADRID, Spain (AP) -- Belgium, the favorite to win its first Fed Cup, is going crazy for women's tennis.

No wonder. Kim Clijsters is the WTA's No. 5-ranked player and Justine Henin is No. 7. None of the other teams beginning play Wednesday in the Fed Cup finals have two in the top 10.

The two-time defending champions Americans have five, but they have withdrawn in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

``It will be a little bit strange in the beginning for us,'' Henin said.

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

Clijsters expects about 20 hardcore fans to be one hand when Belgium opens play against Germany. In Wednesday's two other round-robin matches on clay, Russia was to face the Czech Republic and Spain was to play 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.''

``They're just fans that always travel -- fanatics.''

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

France, with No. 9 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, who reached the finals at Wimbledon before losing to Venus Williams. She also lost to 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.''

The 18-year-old Clijsters has also had a good year. She lost 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.

Five-time champion Spain could challenge Belgium. The teams play Saturday, and Spanish veterans Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario are always dangerous on clay.

Clijsters beat Sanchez-Vicario in straight sets in the quarterfinals of last week's Sanex 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 -- already stepped up despite the absence of the Americans -- will be tight. A car bomb went off Tuesday about 2 miles from the site on the outskirts of northern Madrid. About 100 people were injured as a result of the explosion, which was blamed on the 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.

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, Debbie Jevans, executive director of the Fed Cup, 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 and France vs. Argentina.
 
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