The jokes of Ivan Lendl, the stars Justine and Kim, the great history of tennis in Antwerp


Antwerp has been a tennis ground for a very long time. The European Open is the sixth generation of tournaments organized in the port city. It all started in 1982, with a one-week exhibition, "ATP tournament format". This meeting of the Sportpaleis was at the time known throughout the world, for the wealth of its plateau, and for its trophy, a racket of gold and diamonds promised to the triple winner. Ivan Lendl had won it.

After ten years, Antwerp has become a "classic" ATP tournament before disappearing from the calendar. And then, the city hosted a women's outdoor tournament on clay (Justine Henin won the first edition in 1999, while competing in the first WTA tournament of her career). Then, the Sportpaleis took the hand, for a very popular female event. It was the great era of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. From Venus Williams, too. And Amelie Mauresmo, who is also left with a precious racket of gold and diamonds. When the Belgian stars have retired, it has become more difficult to attract people to the stands, and to interest the sponsors. A new tournament was held in a more modest venue, the Lotto Arena, with Kim Clijsters as director. He only knew one edition.

And then, the European Open was born, thanks to the ideas, the work, and the financing of the company Tennium, directed by Kristoff Puelinckx, and the former French player Sebastien Grosjean. The tournament has just experienced its fourth edition. With Dick Norman as director, for the second year in a row. And the 2019 edition is of course historic. "We'll talk about it again in twenty years, as we are talking again today about Ivan Lendl or Bjorn Borg coming to Antwerp, at the birth of the event", predicts Kristoff Puelinckx. All thanks, of course, to the presence of Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray in the final.

A man has lived the many epics of the Antwerp tournament, or rather tournaments of Antwerp. It is Michel Willems, the referee of the event. He was already there in 1982, and he did not miss any "indoor" edition. The three tournaments organized in the open air in Antwerp are the only ones missing from his "prize list".


Michel Willems, you are the referee of the Antwerp tournament. What is your job exactly ?

In fact, I am the assistant of the supervisor, and the assistant of the director of the tournament. It's about coordinating logistics, especially. For example, I came before the start of the tournament, to measure the grounds, measure the lighting. Care must be taken to ensure that the fields on which the matches will be played meet the conditions and comply. And during the week, I make sure that everything is "ok" for the matches that will unfold.

Are you calling the players to go on the court?

Yes, it's also one of my functions. It is necessary to have contacts with the players, to predict their matches and their schedule. To tell them in how long they will enter the field. You have to plan all that, yes.

And you are likely to intervene, one way or another, during matches, to solve problems?

At the level of the ATP Tour tournaments, it is the supervisor who intervenes, in case of disputes between the chair umpire and the player. And if there is a logistical problem, yes, I have to intervene.

Let's talk now about the past, about your long history with the Antwerp tournament. You were there in 1982, when Antwerp started to host tennis matches, at the most famous exhibition, and the best endowed, in the world …

I have fantastic memories of it, because it's kind of the beginning of my career in the refereeing court. There were super-big names, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl, and I forget about it. They all went through Antwerp. The gold and diamond racket tournament was world famous and attracted a lot of people. But I am very happy that we now find the European Open in Antwerp. It attracts a lot of spectators, and it allows to see very big matches, this week.

When the exhibition became an ATP tournament, the big names, Pete Sampras for example, still came. What relationship did you have with such stars? The players remained affordable?

It all depends on how you approach them. There are a number of them that I knew before they became professional stars, since I had, and still have, the pleasure of being the referee of the Astrid Bowl, Charleroi. And this competition had the chance to welcome future great champions, which I found later, in Antwerp, or in challengers tournaments which I also took care of. And even if I had not met the big stars before, everything is in the relationship we have with the player, and the way we explain with him. Some are more distant than others, but they are all approachable and reachable.

And at the time, you had the opportunity to see them twice a year, because there was the tournament in Brussels, too …

I had the pleasure, too, of doing the tournaments of Brussels, Heysel, and Forest-National. I saw the players in two big tournaments in Belgium. It was amazing, of course …

After, there was the time of the women's tournament. And it was also the time of Kim and Justine. Would not your memories be linked to the atmosphere at Sportpaleis thanks to them?

Yes. With our two players, the atmosphere was incredible. I have great memories of these WTA tournaments. It was another time, but with a fantastic atmosphere.

Do you have an anecdote to tell, on something original that would have happened to you, in tournament?

There is one about Ivan Lendl. He seems to have a rather cold approach, but he liked doing little pranks. One day, before his match, I led him and his opponent to the field. At one point, instead of taking a corridor and following me, they took another lane and hid. When I turned around, I did not see them anymore …

Do you have the opportunity to see the matches, during the tournaments?

It's not easy, but I like to see it. And I think it's important to do it. To see how it happens at the level of logistics, our officials, line judges, chair referee, but also because I like tennis, and I like to see very beautiful matches.

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