British hopes burn bright at Eastbourne's tennis international

Biased? Us at the Eastbourne Herald, and all of you watching the action? We are, as they say, as neutral as we need to be. And actually, tennis is not a sport blinded by chauvinism. Most spectators at the Devonshire Park know their sport, and appreciate excellent play, wherever the players’ passports are stamped and issued.

It helps, too, that players compete in their own right and not with any strong sense of nationalism. If I asked you whether Beatriz Haddad-Maia is Spanish or Romanian, or whether Alex De Minaur is French or Canadian, you would of course correct me and tag them as Brazilian and Aussie respectively. But still surrounded by the swirl of flags in this Tennis League of Nations, we are rooting for the British players.

No Johanna Konta now, of course, so no very local allegiance. We do have a troop of fine young GB players, women and men – and they can make their mark. Eastbourne’s favourite daughter – post-Konta – must be Heather Watson, and after her cracking victory in first qualifying, Heather found herself in an equally tight Court Two encounter with Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko.

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Heather Watson of Great Britain in action during her women's singles qualifying match against Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine on day two of the Rothesay International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)

Watson’s slow start cost her the first set 2-6, but the second was absolutely gripping. Heather dug deep to hold from 15-40 for a 2-1 lead, and it was nip and tuck until she broke Lesia and had a set point to take the second set – but after Tsurenko dramatically broke back, we were in a tie-break.

Now, Watson does not do things the easy way. At 5-1 up in the breaker, she saw Tsurenko doggedly etch away that lead - until, exactly two hours into a marvellous contest, the Ukrainian seized the tie-break, the second set, and the place in the main draw. Heather, with heart on sleeve as always, slipped tearfully off the court – but there was a lifeline later in the day when she was granted a wild card into the main draw. So we’ll do it all over again on Monday….

Meanwhile GB hopes are sensibly optimistic for that little clutch of bright female talent, once hopeful excited teenagers and now with the extra resilience of early-twenties: Harriet Dart is in great shape, having won the match of the Nottingham week – a fabulous contest with Camila Giorgi. Katie Boulter had a very decent Birmingham week, and Jodie Burridge completes a talented trio.

Liam Broady had slipped to a two-set defeat to powerful Aussie Millman, but British hopes are still high in the men’s competition. Cam Norrie steps out on to Centre Court as number one seed, and he’s joined by the mesmeric talent of Dan Evans and the exciting rising star Jack Draper. So – in the politest most civilised terms – it’s C’mon Gee Bee!

DON’T MENTION THE WEATHER

Oh, very well, I won’t – except to admit that we had a soggy start to our Sunday, not really soaking but drizzly enough to render the courts damp and slippery. So play was delayed for about three hours – and it continued under cool grey skies until deep into the evening. Monday, and the week beyond, hold the promise of dry and settled conditions, with the grounds and the town looking their sparkling best.

POWER OR PRECISION

The best tennis doesn’t always come from the biggest players. Yep, a six-foot-plus stature, a searingly powerful serve and explosive hitting will always be hard to play against. But quick thinking, quick movement, canny tactics are all great weapons too. The point was compellingly proven in a physical mismatch of Aleksandra Krunic and the Canadian Rebecca Marino – respectively slight and waif-like, and thunderous and physically dominant. Serbian Aleksandra had faced quite a battle early on, simply to stay in the contest, but we reached a deciding third set with both ladies playing to their strengths. Krunic, with swift movement and laser accuracy, was retrieving some absolute belters from Marino that should have been winners. You could feel Rebecca’s frustration, but without a Plan B, she could find no way around or past the canny Aleksandra – who might not win the tournament, but she will delight and mesmerise a lot of spectators for at least a couple of rounds yet.

PICK A WINNER?

Now then, the Herald does have a little bit to live up. We immodestly confess that in last year’s women’s tournament, we named our four potential semi-finalists and actually got three of them correct: champion Jelena Ostapenko, plus Anett Kontaveit and Camila Giorgi – and we would have made that a quartet, if only Giorgi hadn’t defeated Daria Kasatkina in an earlier round!

Tempting fate, and with the warning not to risk your last fiver on our predictions, here is the Herald Final Four for 2022: Paola Badosa, Barbora Krejcikova, Maria Sakkari, and Camila Giorgi. And if we are wrong, it must have been a misprint….

FASHION STATEMENTS

And finally – a Herald challenge. In distant history, the players’ dress code used to be all-white and no exceptions. Nowadays, I think, Wimbledon is alone in specifying “predominantly white”. Everywhere else, there is plenty of scope for splashes of fashion and colour. Look out for your favourite outfit. Snap it and tweet it, if you like! On Monday’s courts, look no further than our very own Heather Watson – who is parading a magnificent range of outfits that are surely inspired by Beth Mattek-Sands, doubles player and fashion designer supreme.

At least the Mattek-Sands range is stunningly bright and sunny. It contrasts sharply with the pair of pyjamas that Liam Broady appeared to be wearing in his Sunday qualifying round….

But heck, this is Eastbourne, on the Sunshine coast, and this is tennis with a smile on its face. Enjoy the action, everyone!