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Williamses trounce Czechs; eye Kim and Justine in November

By Matthew Cronin

FROM THE FED CUP IN LOWELL, MASS. – The distinct smell of team spirit permeated the Tsongas Arena Sunday as the US via the Williams sisters crushed the Czech Republic 5-0.

But there was little to do but to look way down the road to the November semis, when they could face their greatest out-of-country rivals, Kim Clijsters and Justine-Henin-Hardenne of Belgium.

First, the US has to get past Italy and Belgium has to topple tough Slovakia, but both nations will be favored. Venus had a glimmer in her eye and said she was excited when she imagined the two countries clashing.

"I think so," said Venus. "Playing the Czech team, they are very good, but the main thing is not to be overconfident and to really concentrate and make sure there isn't a major upset. Against a team like Belgium, you have to really focus because you realize they are extremely good players at the top of the game. It's two different situations and I enjoy all of them. I've played Kim and Justine lots and lots of times, so at least I'll be ready."

A more reserved Serena said that the potential contest could be tasty, but first the US has to focus on defeating Italy in the quarterfinals. "Sure," Serena said. "But I'm not thinking that far ahead."

After trouncing a star-less Austria 5-0, Clijsters and Henin said that they would like forward to playing the US.

"It is perhaps a little early but it would be a great match," Clijsters said. "I'm sure Justine and I will be very motivated for that one." Justine added, "Serena and Venus are a very good team of course but it is great for Belgium to have two top players and a great team and I think we have a great chance."

The Czechs had no chance this weekend, which was obvious an hour before Sunday's matches began, when Czech captain Petra Langrova subbed 21-year-old Klara Koukalova for top player Daja Bedanova, hoping to confuse the US with the move.

"They told me that it's going to be a surprise for Serena because she was counting on playing Daja, who she knows very well," Koukalova said.

But it's one thing to throw out an unknown lefty foe with enough talent to threaten Serena should she not bring her "A" game, like Iveta Benesova did for a set yesterday. But it's another trot out a player with a mediocre serve and a marginal return who doesn't have the weapons to unearth Serena even on a bad day.

Koukalova, who had upset Monica Seles in the second round of the '02 Australian Open and had solid, if unspectacular groundies, tried to hang in with the powerful Williams from the baseline but was completely overwhelmed.

Serena stomped her 6-2, 6-2 to give the United States an insurmountable 3-0 lead. An hour later, Venus trashed Benesova 6-3, 6-2 to put the U.S. ahead 4-0. Then the Williamses buried Bedanova/Eva Birnerova 6-0, 6-1. Shutout accomplished.

Langrova said that her change-up had nothing to do with Daja's poor play and lack of confidence this year, but what does it say when you pull out your number one in the potentially clinching match and replace her with a someone who has yet to crack the Top 70?

"Serena didn't know Klara's game and that was the only chance we had to try anything," Langrova said. "It wasn't because of Daja's tennis. It was to surprise her."

Bedanova didn't appear to be upset. "It wasn't the point today. Klara did a good job. The best results I had against her was when she didn't know me."

Last year, the United States was stunned 3-2 in the first round by Austria in a twilight zone week that saw captain Billie Jean King boot Jennifer Capriati off the team. This week, it's been all in the family for King, coach Zina Garrison, the Williamses, Meghann Shaughnessy and Alexandra Stevenson.

"The biggest difference [between this year and last] is you see that team work and chemistry works," Garrison said. "This team came in so positive and was really looking to gel from myself, to Billie Jean to the hitting partners, we all work as a team. It showed. The enthusiasm was great. Venus and Serena seemed to be very excited to go out and play. One of the great pictures was when all four of them were holding up the flag and Billie and I were sitting on the side and saying, 'This is what team is all about.' "

Serena added, "We built this whole vibe and this mutual feeling that we want to do well and have a chance to compete together," Serena said. "It's all about the team. ... It feels great. I'm really happy," said Serena, who like Venus was playing in her first tie since 1999. "I really wanted to go out there and have an opportunity to win to get us to the next round and hopefully go all the way."

With Venus and Serena on the team, that appears very probable. But it's a long, possible injury-strewn way between now and November and it's still very possible that the final won't be played in the US Should it be played on clay in Europe again, no victory is assured, even for the two best players on the planet.
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