LONDON: Russia could not have a harder start to the defence of their Fed Cup title than this weekend's tie in Liege against a Belgian team featuring Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne.
U.S. Open champion Clijsters, the world number two, and French Open champion Henin-Hardenne, ranked four, are competing together in the team event for the first time since July 2003.
Anastasia Myskina, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova are all unavailable, so in-form world number five Nadia Petrova and number nine Elena Dementieva front the Russian challenge.
Clijsters has been in training for the tie since her disappointing second-round defeat by American Jill Craybas in her last outing in Miami on March 25.
Hard training needed
``With Dementieva and Petrova the matches will be difficult, so training has to be hard,'' Clijsters said on her website.
She did, though, take time out earlier this month to announce her engagement to American boyfriend Brian Lynch.
Petrova, returning to the Russian team for the first time since 2003 and fresh from winning back-to-back titles at Amelia Island and Charleston, has a poor 1-7 win-loss record against Henin-Hardenne.
But she can take heart from the fact that the Belgian lost her first match on clay for almost two years when she was beaten by Swiss Patty Schnyder in the semifinals at Charleston last week.
``It seems she isn't completely used to the surface and that's why she's not showing her best game,'' Petrova told a Russian newspaper.
``Kim Clijsters hasn't played a match on clay this year. Hopefully we can exploit this and leave Belgium with a victory.''
France, which has lost to Russia in each of the last two Fed Cup finals, will expect world number one and Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo to inspire the side in Nancy against Italy.
Mauresmo has been resting since losing to Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Miami semifinals three weeks ago but now she is raring to go.
``Meeting up with the team is really exciting because we know we're going to share some really intense moments,'' Mauresmo said on her website.
In the two other ties Germany host a weakened U.S. team in Ettenheim while Austria visits Valencia to face Spain.
Craybas, the world number 39, leads the Americans, including Jamea Jackson, Shenay Perry and Vania King. Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters Venus and Serena are all nursing injuries.
All four ties will be played on clay. Reuters