16 February 2007

Pride and Joy

There are few people who succeed in bringing international attention to Belgium's great divide. Most of the time I think Belgians are happy to let their internal issues go unnoticed. They prefer to sit back and let the rest of us throw our problems onto the world stage; they like saying "I told you so."

In the world of women's tennis, however, Belgium's two worlds collide head-to-head. Justin Henin and Kim Clijsters have been rivals their entire careers. Henin seems to embody her French-ness perfectly: fiery, wiry, and maybe more than a little arrogant. Clijsters, on the other hand, is quintessential Fleming. She is modest, determined. She is a top player but never gives you the impression that she is too good. And she is retiring this year, at the peak of her game, to settle down and have children. In the tradition of all Flemings she will probably move back to her home town, buy a house on the same street as the rest of her family, and enjoy her early retirement.

I really like both Henin and Clijsters. But in Flanders there is no question. Wednesday night I attended Clijster's opening match at the Diamond Games in Antwerp and saw first hand just how crazy Flemish sporting fans can be. It was like attending an American basketball game! At the start of the match the lights were dimmed, and the players--Clijsters and her unfortunate opponent whose name I forget--strutted out onto the court with a disco ball gleaming from the center of the ceiling. "YMCA" hit the speakers, and the fans we on their feet. These were Belgians like I had never seen before! They were loud. They were colorful. They had bullhorns and Belgian flags. They were (almost) obnoxious. It was great!

Of course Clijsters won. Her opponent, who never had a chance, received (as Z would say) "a serious spanking": 6-0, 6-2. Afterwards Clijsters received a standing ovation for nearly five minutes. I think this tournament marks her last professional appearance in Belgium, so she was not leaving the court quickly. The crowd was so wooed that when the second match began random people continued to yell "Komaan Kim!" But then most of the crowd actually disappeared after that first match, retiring to the arena food booths for candy and champagne. Most of them lingered there well into the second match. I guess Belgians can sustain the role of "fanatic fan" for only so long.

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