In the mid 2000s, two of the best female players in the game, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin were from the same Western European country: Belgium, population 11 million. Belgium proved size was no obstacle when it comes to producing elite tennis players.
In the 16th century, Belgian aristocracy was crazy about the game of real tennis, much like its French and English counterparts. Some reports claim that Belgium was actually the birthplace of the first tennis courts. A tennis court is even featured in the painting The story of David and Bathsheba by Belgian (Flemish) painter Herri Met de Bles, painted around 1535-40.
In 1902, the Royal Belgian Tennis Federation was set up. Around the same time, tennis became part of the Royal Leopold Club which one of Belgium’s first tennis greats, Paul de Borman co-founded. 11 other clubs joined the Royal Leopold club and they competed in a league.
Belgium was one of the first countries to compete in the Davis Cup, in 1904, the Belgians were runner up to France in what was known as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge and which was held in London.
Belgian tennis operated on a club system up until the late 1970s. Until this time, Belgium achieved moderate success in international professional tennis, but the country really became successful when it got a formalised tennis system with both the Flemish and Wallon regions setting up their own tennis systems in 1979.
Once Belgian tennis got organised, players such as Xavier Malisse, Sabine Appelmans and the Rochus brothers competed on the professional tours and gave Belgians successful players to cheer at the big events.
In the 2000s, Henin and Clijsters meant Belgians had a reason to cheer in plenty of Grand slam finals and those two greats plus Belgian’s participation in two Davis Cup finals in 2015 and 2017 have helped make tennis the third most popular sport in the country and the most watched on TV.
Tennis in Belgium really hit the international stage with the emergence of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Both women contested the French Open semi-finals as teenagers in 2001 and two years later they competed against one another in the final. They would also go on to play each other in the US Open ‘03 final and the Australian Open ‘04 final.
Henin would go on to win seven slams and Clijsters four, and both women would spend time at No.1 in the rankings.
Did you know?
Kim Clisters came back from retirement and from having a baby, a total of three years away from the game, to win the US Open in 2009; it was only her third tournament back!
In the men’s game, David Goffin has kept Belgian tennis in the limelight. Goffin competed in the ATP 1000 Cincinnati ‘18 final, has played in four ATP 1000 semi finals and three slam quarter-finals. He was also the runner up in the ATP World Tour finals championship match (2017).
Belgium reached the Davis Cup 1904, 2015 and 2017 finals.
At the Fed Cup 2001, Belgium were champions. They were also the 2006 runner ups.
Henin won Olympic Gold in Athens 2004.
The European Open has been hosted in Antwerp since 2016. It’s an ATP 250 event and is held on indoor hard courts in mid October.
Before 1979, Belgium did not have a centralized system and was mainly played at country clubs. When a system was introduced, Belgium had two tennis centers, one for the Flemish and one for the Walloons which influenced one another.
Belgium has a preference for indoor tennis facilities due to the often wet weather.
The most promising club players follow a common path of club to tennis academy to National tennis center and upcoming player Zizou Bergs is a good example of that.
Belgian Wim Fissette has coached several WTA former No. 1 players such as Naomi Osaka, Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka.
The Kim Clijsters Academy is one of the world’s top training centers. Both the Tennis Europe Junior Tour and the ITF World Tennis Tour Juniors Tournament will be held there in 2021.
Justine Henin also has a tennis academy named Justine Henin Academy. Henin’s former coach Carlos Rodriguez is the academy’s sports director. 2016 Rio Gold Medalist Monica Puig, Elina Svitlona and Daniela Hantuchová are among the top players who have trained there since it opened in 2007.