July 8, 2010: The day Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams played tennis in front of a record crowd

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On this day in 2010, an exhibition match between the two champions broke the attendance record for a tennis match that was set way back in 1973

8 July 2021
Kim Clijsters et Serena Williams, On this day

What exactly happened on that day?

On this day, July 8, in 2010, Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams played an exhibition match in front of a record crowd of 35,621 spectators, more than the 30,472 who had attended the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. The match was held at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels to mark the beginning of Belgium’s presidency of the European Union. Although the overall attendance record for a tennis match was broken in 2020 by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who played in front of 51,954 spectators, the crowd that gathered to watch Clijsters defeat Williams (6-3, 6-2) remains the biggest in the history of women’s tennis.

The players involved: Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams

  • Kim Clijsters: the Grand Slam winning champion how returned after a break

Kim Clijsters, born in 1983, had been one of the best players in the world ever since she reached the Roland-Garros final in 2001, where she was defeated by Jennifer Capriati after a breathtaking two-and-a-half hour match (1-6 ,6-4, 12-10).  She won her first major title in 2002, at the WTA Finals, held in Los Angeles, defeating Serena Williams in the final (7-5, 6-3). Her style of play was mainly aggressive, with the ability to dictate the game from the first shot, but she was also known for her exceptional movement and her trademark splits, sliding even on hard court, retrieving every ball. In her peak year 2003, she became the first Belgian to reach the world No 1 ranking.

Clijsters in action during the 2007 Australian Open
Clijsters in action during the 2007 Australian Open

That year, she competed in 21 singles events, reaching the semifinals in all but one of them, advancing to 15 finals, and winning nine titles to end the season with a 90-12 record. The only thing she was not able to achieve was claiming a Grand Slam title: she reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and was runner-up at both the French and the US Open, being defeated each time by fellow Belgian Justine Henin. She missed almost the entire 2004 season due to a wrist injury. Back in the game in 2005, after a great summer, she finally won her first Grand Slam title at the US Open, defeating Mary Pierce in the final (6-3, 6-1). As the winner of the US Open Series, Clijsters doubled her prize money, earning $2.2 million (at the time, the largest in women’s sports history). To the general astonishment of the tennis world, she announced her retirement in May 2007, but two years later, she returned to the tour with a bang, triumphing at the US Open a second time, defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final (7-5, 6-3). In July 2010, she reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals and was world No 7.

Serena Williams, born in 1981, is the youngest of the Williams family. Her older sister Venus, at the start of her career in 1997, had declared that her main rival for the world No 1 ranking would be her younger sister Serena. At the time, tennis experts did not know whether she was joking or just being provocative. They soon discovered how serious Venus was. Serena’s breakthrough year was 1999. That year, in September, to the surprise of many, she claimed her first Grand Slam title before Venus, beating Martina Hingis in the final (6-3, 7-6).

The 19th, May, 2002, Serena finally won a title on clay

She also won the doubles event, partnering her older sister, and by the end of the year, she was ranked No 4 in the world. In 2001, she reached the US Open final, losing to her sister in the first Grand Slam final contested by two sisters during the Open Era. Between Roland-Garros 2002 and the 2003 Australian Open, she took her career to a new dimension, accomplishing an extraordinary feat which was known as the “Serena Slam”: she claimed four Grand Slam tournaments in a row, beating her sister Venus each time in the final round. Between 2004 and 2006, she was less dedicated to her tennis career, and, despite winning the 2005 Australian Open, she even took a break from the tour in 2006. She returned stronger than ever in 2007 and, over the coming years, she won several major titles. In July 2010, she claimed her 13th Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon, defeating Vera Zvonareva in the final (6-3, 6-2).

The location: Brussels

The King Baudouin Stadium was inaugurated in 1930. Originally known as the Juiblee Stadium, and as the Heysel Stadium from 1946, it mostly hosted football games and had a capacity of 70,000 spectators. After the 1985 tragedy, during which a charge of Liverpool fans against Juventus fans resulted in 39 casualties, the stadium only hosted minor events until it was renovated and renamed, in 1995. 

The facts: Serena Williams stepped in for injured Justine Henin at the last minute

On July 8, 2010, an exhibition match was held at the King Baudouin Stadium to celebrate Belgium’s presidency of the European Union, which could break the record of the biggest crowd ever gathered to witness a tennis match. The record belonged to the inimitable Battle of the Sexes, won by Billie Jean King against Bobby Riggs in Houston in 1973 in front of 30,472 spectators. For this special occasion, two home superstars were scheduled: the eternal rivals, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. Unfortunately, Henin injured her elbow at Wimbledon, where she lost in the fourth round against.. who else but Clijsters (2-6, 6-2, 6-3). However, in a short amount of time, the organizers managed to find the best possible replacement: Serena Williams, the world’s top-ranked player who had just claimed her 13th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. 

The attendance record was broken indeed, as 35,621 people, including Henin, attended this historical event, where the umpire was none other than the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova herself. The  match, followed by fireworks and a concert, was easily won by the local favourite, as Serena had had less than five days of recovery after her Wimbledon effort.

“As a little girl, I came here so many times to watch soccer games,” said Clijsters, whose father had played for the national soccer team, according to the Belgian paper L’avenir. “Being able to play here is very special and emotional. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. I’ve seen my dad play here many times, it’s a shame he’s not there anymore to see me… I’m not used to such a big court and to have so much space behind and beside the lines. The view was terrible. It was easy to lose focus…. I want to thank everyone for breaking this world record together.”

“I’m very happy to be here. I’ve never played in Belgium before and it’s amazing that so many people came”, said Williams, despite her loss.

What next? Federer and Nadal break the record set by Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams

The attendance record set by Clijsters and Williams on this day would live for 10 years, until Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal drew over 50,000 spectators to their “Match for Africa ” in Cape Town. However, their 2010 clash continues to hold the record for the biggest attendance in tennis history.

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