Clijsters to play Henin at 40,000-capacity stadium

BRUSSELS: Belgian rivals Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin will try to assemble the biggest tennis crowd ever when then play an exhibition match in Brussels at the 40,000-capacity King Baudouin Stadium on July 8.

If the 34,000 tickets are sold and all 6,000 invitees show up for the evening match, it will easily beat the 30,492 fans who attended the 1973 “Battle of the +++es'''' between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome.

“We can do this together, so why not break this record,'''' Henin said Tuesday.

Clijsters, who has won two U.S. Open titles, and Henin, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, both came back from retirement over the past year and have shot back into prominence. Clijsters won at Flushing Meadows last fall and Henin reached the final of the Australian Open this year.

“It is extraordinary. It is almost surreal,'''' said Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme, whose government backs the match as a quintessential Belgian statement. “When I talk to world leaders, whether it is in China or the United States, they talk about Kim and Justine.''''

The scene of their match at the stadium used for Belgium''s national football team and the Van Damme track meet as a tennis court will only add to that.

Usually a 50,000-seat stadium, 10,000 seats will be sacrificed for a huge television screen to be set up to make sure all fans can see every detail of Henin''s famed backhand or Clijsters'' power drive.

The players, too, will revel in the extraordinary conditions.

“It will be very emotional,'''' Clijsters said. “It is so much bigger than what we are used to. And, on top, we can break the record.''''

Beating the “Battle of the +++es'''' record will not have the social connotations of King''s 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win over Riggs, when she made a bold statement for a whole generation of women in the United States.

Organizer Bob Verbeeck said King would be invited as an honorary umpire.

This time, the match marks the opening of Belgium''s six-month presidency of the European Union.

Belgium is no stranger to big tennis events. For years, the14,000-capacity Sports Palace in Antwerp drew more than 100,000 people in one week to the Diamond Games tournament.

Tickets to the “Best of Belgium'''' match will go for euro20 ($27) oreuro 25 ($34), with profits going to humanitarian causes backed by the two players.

It was still uncertain what surface the two players would have to perform on. Henin excels on clay and Clijsters on hard courts, and a split of the two surfaces might still be picked, Verbeeck said.

Clijsters already has some experience playing special matches. Last year, she was among a handful of stars inaugurating the retractable roof on Centre Court at Wimbledon.