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Team WTAworld, Administrator, aka Nibbler
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By STEPHEN WADE<br />AP Sports Writer

MADRID, Spain (AP) -- Led by Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, Belgium is the team to beat at the Fed Cup.

The two-time defending champion United States pulled out, citing security concerns following the Sept. 11 attacks. Play opens Wednesday on indoor clay.

``The absence of the Americans isn't good for anybody,'' Spanish tennis federation spokesman Pedro Hernandez said. ``They have five of the top women in the world, and they all are world personalities in tennis.''

U.S. captain Billie Jean King is upset at not competing but said withdrawing was ``probably the right decision.''

``We worked all year long to get the team together and we were looking forward to playing in Madrid,'' King said. ``We get such good crowds there and the people are so demonstrative.''

Five Americans finished in the WTA's final top 10, with Lindsay Davenport at No. 1 despite not winning a Grand Slam event.

Clijsters finished No. 5 and Henin No. 6. They are the top players in the Fed Cup field, with France's Amelie Mauresmo, at No. 9, the only other top 10 player.

Clijsters became the first Belgian to reach the French Open final, losing to Jennifer Capriati 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 in the longest third set in a women's final at Roland Garros. She also made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Over the weekend, Clijsters lost in the semifinals of the tour's championships in Munich, Germany, falling to Davenport 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3). Davenport can see Clijsters challenging for No. 1.

``She's had a phenomenal breakthrough year,'' Davenport said. ``It takes some time to win the big matches, and she's almost there.''

Henin has also had an excellent year. Her one-handed backhand -- described as the most fluid in women's tennis -- guided her to the Wimbledon final, where she was overwhelmed by Venus Williams. Henin also reached the French Open semis and fourth round of the U.S. Open.

Without the Williams sisters, Capriati, Davenport and Monica Seles, it's difficult to see who might keep Belgium from winning its first Fed Cup.

Possibly the the French.

Captain Guy Forget has depth and power. At the top is Mauresmo, followed by Nathalie Tauziat, Sandrine Testud and Nathalie Dechy.

Testud upset Capriati in the quarterfinals in Munich but was beaten in the semifinals by Serena Williams 6-3, 6-0. Testud ousted Mauresmo from the first round in Munich, with Tauziat going out in the opening round to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

The Spanish have won the Fed Cup five times, although they were routed 5-0 last year in the final by the United States. In eight finals between 1991 and 1998, Spain won five.

Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez were the cornerstones, and they are back -- and playing on clay, where Spaniards probably are the best in the world.

The Fed Cup is played in a round-robin format with two groups -- Belgium, Spain, Russia and Australia in one, and Germany, France, Argentina and the Czech Republic in the other. The top team from each group will meet for the title Sunday.

Germany, which replaced the United States, will be without Anke Huber, who has retired. Captain Markus Schur will go with Barbara Rittner, Bianka Lamade, Martina Mueller and Scarlett Werner.

``After the retirement of Anke Huber, a new era begins in German tennis and the future belongs to these young players,'' Schur said.

Russia has a young team featuring Elena Dementieva, Elena Likhovtseva, Nadia Petrova and Elena Bovina. Anna Kournikova, who missed most of the year with a foot stress fracture, is not on the team.
 
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