Henin-Hardenne's withdrawal could benefit U.S.

This weekend, the U.S. Fed Cup team will take on Belgium in the quarterfinals. As Bonnie DeSimone writes, the Americans, despite not having any of their star players, may just have a chance now that Justine Henin-Hardenne has withdrawn.

Updated: July 13, 2006, 1:15 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

The U.S. Fed Cup team is hoping to harness the same bottled lightning that shocked Germany in the quarterfinals to defeat Belgium this weekend and take another step toward its first championship since 2000.

That notion would have sounded nuts a few months ago, with the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport sidelined by injuries.

However, the U.S. team received a break when Wimbledon finalist Justine Henin-Hardenne withdrew. After mulling it over for a few days, the No. 3 player in the world did not have enough energy to compete. According to team captain Carl Maes, she was exhausted after her three-set loss at the All England Club against Amelie Mauresmo.

"Justine doesn't feel the freshness that will be required in her attacking game to be on court," Maes told The Associated Press.

It's been a long six weeks for Henin-Hardenne. Last month she won her third career French Open title without conceding a set. She was on pace to accomplish the same feat at Wimbledon before running into Mauresmo.

It could be a huge blow for the Belgian team. Despite Henin-Hardenne's tepid relationship with Kim Clijsters, the duo has been solid where the Fed Cup is concerned. The two played earlier this year for the first time since 2001 and the impact was immediate as they swept to victory against two-time defending champion Russia.

U.S. Fed Cup captain Zina Garrison will be pleased. She joked before hearing of Henin-Hardenne's withdrawal that "it would be nice if she stayed on the beach a little longer -- she's playing some of her best tennis."

Although Henin-Hardenne has withdrawn, Clijsters has shown ambivalence about playing in this round, which takes place Saturday and Sunday at the Sea'Rena (hold the Williams quips, please) in Ostend, Belgium. The winner will play either Spain or Italy in the final.

Kim Clijsters
Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesKim Clijsters will be leading the Belgium Fed Cup team in their quarterfinal matchup as they face the U.S. starting on July 15.

Clijsters posted an entry on her Web site a couple of months ago saying the timing of the semifinal wasn't ideal in the crowded calendar, and expressed reluctance about playing on the presumed surface: clay. Shortly afterward, Belgian tennis officials announced the matches would be played on an indoor hard court, apparently pacifying their popular star.

As for the Americans, a pair of singles victories by Jamea Jackson and one by Jill Craybas toppled the favored Germans and vindicated Garrison's selections and her coaching.

Garrison, whose contract is up after this year, said she'd like to continue as captain.

Three of the same four players who were picked to play in Germany are back. No. 67 Jackson and No. 70 Craybas are expected to play singles again, and amateur Vania King, who has risen to a career-high ranking of No. 79, was reinvited as well. No. 51 Shenay Perry begged off because of a sore knee. Garrison replaced her with 134th-ranked Mashona Washington, who also played against Russia last year.

Jackson, 19, has had several memorable moments since the last Fed Cup weekend, including a semifinal defeat of No. 4 Maria Sharapova on grass at Birmingham, where she reached the final before succumbing to Russia's Vera Zvonareva. Jackson, who climbed to a career-high No. 54 after that tournament, also defeated Kirsten Flipkens in the first round at Wimbledon.

Jamea Jackson
Michael Kienzler/Bongarts/Getty ImagesJamea Jackson is 18-13 this season including reaching her first career final at Birmingham; a tournament that included a win over top-seeded Maria Sharapova.

"The USTA has been looking at Jamea for a long time now, hoping she'd get a breakthrough,'' Garrison said. "Not that she wasn't taking her tennis seriously before, but she's taken her preparation to another notch. What she did in Birmingham was amazing.''

King became the first U.S. amateur player to appear in a Fed Cup match when she played in the dead rubber doubles match against Germany. She is still pondering whether or not she will go to college on a tennis scholarship or turn pro, a decision Garrison said she hopes isn't weighing too much on the 17-year-old.

"I've had it on my mind to talk to her about it,'' Garrison said. "She reminds me a lot of Lindsay. She has that inner fire that comes out in interesting and weird ways.''

Craybas, who just turned 32, has the mental boost of having ousted Clijsters in the first round of the Nasdaq-100 Open this year in Miami -- their only meeting to date.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.

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