The Tennis Space Miscellany on record tennis crowds:
This summer’s exhibition match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium is unashamedly about setting a record.
“The objective of this exhibition match is to set a spectator record for a game of tennis, exceeding 80,000,” Real Madrid have disclosed on their club website about the match on July 14, which will raise money for the club’s and Nadal’s charities.
For years, the record for an unsanctioned tennis match was the 30,000 spectators who watched ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ in 1973. When Billie Jean King, then aged 29, played Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion and an ageing 55-year-old hustler, it was much more than a simple Adam-versus-Eve game of tennis. It was a spectacle which involved the male chauvinist arriving on court pulled by six blonde showgirls (his “bosom buddies”), a feminist sweeping in on a Cleopatra-style gold litter, and plenty of big money and trash-talking.
The world was looking on – there was also a global television audience of millions – so a defeat for King would have been a huge setback for women’s tennis, giving sneering rights to chauvinists across the globe. “No broad can beat me,” said Riggs. “I’m playing Billie Jean for all the guys who are gonna get married, whose wives won’t let them play poker on a Friday night or go fishin’ on the weekend. I’ve gotta do it, an old 55-year-old guy with one foot in the grave. There wouldn’t be any problems in this world if women had stayed in the kitchen and in the bedroom.”
King stepped down on to the court, presented Riggs with a little brown piglet as a ‘tribute’ to his male chauvinism, accepted his gift of a giant candy sucker, and then went on to win in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
That record held until Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters played an exhibition in Brussels in 2010, watched by 35,000.
At the time they played the match, at the King Baudouin Stadium, this did not receive a huge amount of global attention. That all changed a few days and weeks later when it became known that Williams, the new Wimbledon champion, had arrived in Belgium with two cut feet, so had played with the same injuries which would keep her out of that summer’s US Open. No one seems to have established exactly how Serena ended up with gashed feet in a German bar, with one strong theory being that she was slashed by a broken beer bottle.
The record for a sanctioned tennis match was set at the 2004 Davis Cup final when 26,000 watched Spain play the United States.
A temporary clay court was set up at one end of the Estadio Olimpico in Seville. This is mostly remembered for being the first proper sighting of what Rafael Nadal could do when the world was watching – he bounced all all over the clay after beating Andy Roddick in a singles rubber, and Spain went on to win a trophy which they affectionately refer to as ‘The Salad Bowl’.
The largest stadium at the grand slams is the Arthur Ashe at the US Open, which has a capacity of 23,200. Go up to the top level, to the cheap seats, and you will find it difficult to make out what is happening on the court. Wimbledon’s Centre Court is the next largest, seating 15,000, while the French Open’s Court Philippe Chatrier holds 14,840 and the Australian Open’s Rod Laver has room for 14,820 spectators.