Women’s final matchup means festive day in Belgium
Brussels, Belgium ? More than 200 people packed the village hall in Bree, the small town where Kim Clijsters was born 20 years ago, almost to the day.
They were loyal to Clijsters, all right, but that didn’t stop them from bursting into applause Saturday after Justine Henin-Hardenne — Clijsters’ friend, rival and countrywoman — won the French Open.
The 6-0, 6-4 victory in Paris gave Henin-Hardenne her first major title and a first for her country: the first Grand Slam final — men or women — featuring only Belgians.
Clijsters made a gracious speech after the final in Roland Garros. And in Belgium, at the Geronsart tennis club, where the young “Juju” first wielded a racket, she received a heartfelt ovation.
Both women are wildly popular in a nation unaccustomed to such success in sports.
“That was a great day for Belgium, one we’ll talk about for 20 years,” said Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who traveled to Paris for the match.
“Kim and Justine have enchanted Belgium and done so much for the image of our country,” added opposition leader Joelle Milquet. “Thank you both.”
The showdown between Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne brought this nation of 10 million to a standstill. Brussels’ streets were eerily silent as Belgians gathered around TV screens.
But the historic Grand Place in the heart of the capital echoed with cheers for both finalists as 6,000 fans waving the red-yellow-and-black national colors watched the match on a giant screen.
“We’re so proud, thank you Justine,” the daily La Derniere Heure said on its Web site after the match. Other newspapers prepared special evening or Sunday editions.
Belgium was celebrating hours before the first serve.
The royal family led, by King Albert and Queen Paola, joined Verhofstadt and other political leaders on the 185-mile trip to Paris for the match.
In a country with deep divisions between Dutch-speaking Flemings and Francophone Walloons, support for the two women cut across linguistic lines.
Henin-Hardenne is a Walloon and Clijsters is a Fleming — but they have been friends since their days as junior players. French-speaking Belgians are as likely to shout “Allez Kim!” as their Flemish counterparts cry “Komaan Juju!”
“Belgian and proud of it,” headlined the French-language daily La Libre Belgique. “An event, an exploit that gives a boost to a whole nation.”
“To talk about Fleming vs. Walloons today is completely ridiculous. In Paris, it’s, ‘Come on Belgium!'” said the Flemish daily De Morgen.
Bart Sommers, head of the Flemish regional government, congratulated Henin-Hardenne.
“Hopefully, they’ll be a lot more Belgian Grand Slam finals, starting in Wimbledon,” he told Belgian news media. “Kim can take her revenge there.”