Kim, Serena & 35,681 Fans
Published July 08, 2010 12:00
BRUSSELS, Belgium - It wasn't the all-Belgian affair initially billed, but that was hardly going to stop a world-record breaking tennis crowd turning out to see local heroine Kim Clijsters play world No.1 Serena Williams in Brussels' massive King Baudouin Stadium on Thursday night.
Two-time US Open champion Clijsters, who was originally due to take on her compatriot Justine Henin, defeated the Wimbledon champion in straight sets, 63 62. Precisely 35,681 people witnessed the match, surpassing the previous record of 30,472 set in 1973 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the so-called 'Battle of the Sexes' match at the Houston Astrodome.
"I was here often as a little girl to come and watch football," said Clijsters, whose late father, Leo, played soccer in the stadium. "That I can actually play here is very special and emotional. I said to myself a few times: 'Remember this moment well.'"
Spectators at the glittering occasion included Belgium's Prince Filip and Princess Mathilde, but a more familiar tennis face called the shots: 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova served as umpire, her face beamed onto on large screens. When Clijsters nearly hit the all-time great with a missed return, Navratilova joked: "Did I say something wrong?"
Former world No.1 Henin, who was forced to withdraw from the gala after injuring her right elbow at Wimbledon, was nonetheless present. So too was French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, who acted as understudy for the players.
"It was magnificent," said Williams, who broke her 12-major tie with King last Saturday and took part despite a foot injury. "In all my years on the circuit, I've never experienced anything like it. So much attention to tennis is fantastic."
As well as raising money for charity, the Best of Belgium vs. Best of the World extravaganza - which also included a concert and fireworks - marks the opening of the nation's six-month presidency of the European Union.
When the event was launched earlier this year, Belgium's prime minister, Yves Leterme noted the global impact of his country's two best-known daughters: "When I talk to world leaders, whether it is in China or the United States, they talk about Kim and Justine."