'Give Eastbourne tennis chief freedom of town' - reflections on the Viking International

Planning and patience, enthusiasm and expertise, stamina and sheer love of the sport. Eastbourne’s Viking International tournament was, yet again, a triumph for tennis and for the town.

Friday, 2nd July 2021, 9:44 am
A seagull swoops in to see what all the fuss is about at Devonshire Park / Picture: Getty

In this Covid-stricken year, the obstacles had been daunting. Sharply reduced spectator numbers will have impacted finances, both for the organisers and for outlets such as catering. Safety protocols imposed a strange, slightly anxious regime – tedious but necessary. We reporters found ourselves filling in health declarations at 6am each morning, or being literally turned away. The new normal? Oh, for a bit of the old normal….

Spectators soon learned to improvise. Officially, you booked your ticket, reported on time and were shown to your allocated seat, and there you stayed. Officially. But, in the absence this year of those coveted ground passes, the punters soon realised that, on their way to the coffee stall, there was still a chance to stroll and safely mingle.

Jeļena Ostapenko lifts the women's singles title last weekend / Picture: Jon Rigby

Steering courteously between one another, and still finding ample open space to be perfectly Covid-safe, the locals still created a fair imitation of the Devonshire Park’s usual bustle.

Two or three of the outside courts were, technically, screened off – but with canny positioning, spectators found ways to glimpse the action – half of one court and two-thirds of the other.

It was rather like buying one of those restricted-view seats at the theatre, where you can’t quite see the extreme stage left, but the price is an absolute bargain. Well done for improvisation, guys!

Perversely, on our wonderful Sunshine Coast, the weather chose not to play ball. Just a couple of warm and very pleasant days, in the middle of the week, were book-ended by cooler grey ones – and the whole of Monday was lost to streaming rain.

Fans relax on finals day at the Viking International / Picture: Jon Rigby

I found myself recalling a 2020 stroll across the Devonshire Park, in blazing sunshine, on a Saturday in June which would have been last year’s finals day. Welcome to the British summer.

Still no drama and no crisis: the organisers steered unflappably through the week.

Do they still do those Freedom of the Town awards? Then Gavin Fletcher should be getting a special letter on posh headed notepaper.

The tournament director is actually not a man to stand on ceremony. He is pragmatic, hands-on and lead-from-the-front. But inside is a passion for this event.

Depending upon our maddening coastal weather, Gavin might be spotted in shortsleeves or in full North-Sea-trawler gear. Dependent on the state of play, he might be frowning or relaxed.

But he leads from the front, is accessible to all, and takes the whole tournament on his broad shoulders.

Gavin can call on the very best of teams. From affable head groundsman Danny Negus to the immaculate young ball crews, everybody plays a part. So many local people give a week of their time – earning three times nothing in the process – as stewards.

Personally, I never made it down the length of College Road, and into the grounds, without endless hellos and good-mornings.

Old friend Tony, traffic marshall and also Eastbourne Borough FC loyalist, was there so unfailingly that he must surely have had a sleeping bag snaffled under a hedge somewhere. New friends Florence and Sarah, freshly graduated – what can you do with a BA in English?, as that Avenue Q musical number goes – but putting their interpersonal skills to good use directing lost spectators on Centre Court.

Loyal steward Gerry, who has brought his genial, avuncular supervision to Court Two for the past two decades and more. You can keep Covid at bay behind a face covering, but you cannot mask a genuine friendly smile.

This is the week when Eastbourne puts on its proudest and most welcoming face of the year.

Incidentally – and it does seem churlish to grouse – but if I could change one thing about the Devonshire Park tournament, I’d forbid those security guys to wear black.

Yes, we need proper security, but give the contract to a company that will forbid its staff to wear dark glasses – except if the sun is blinding.

Give them some branding, if you like. Put them in smart green suits in place of the humourless black – or better, kit them out with those loud multi-striped blazers people wear at Lord’s or bowls festivals.

Once you finesse your way past their grim exteriors, they are perfectly nice people – I will long cherish, for example, my daily chats with Michael, telling me poignantly of his friend and ex-Army comrade who lost his life some weeks ago.

The real heroes are usually unsung, and unnoticed. We only spot a line-judge when there’s a rare contentious call. We only notice the ball-crews if – incredibly rarely – a youngster drops a ball or rolls it in the wrong direction. The students – from Eastbourne College, The Cavendish School and a few from the sadly-closed Moira House – were phenomenal.

At one match I had a privileged courtside fold-up seat, frighteningly close to the action, and alongside me sat a young man with his knee in an enormous splint. Torn ligaments were not going to stop young Reuben – whose twin sister Freya and brother Ethan were also on the squad.

The Eastbourne tennis week is special, and unique. It will surely be back in its proper splendour in June 2022. The only problem: what shall we do for the next 51 weeks?