Dart, Burrage, Boulter, Kvitova, Jabeur or Ostapenko - who will you cheer on in Eastbourne’s week of top-class tennis?
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The WTA 500 tournament, supported by a men’s LTA 250, will make Eastbourne a focus of sporting action, and the world is watching. Its exquisite tree-lined setting, between Edwardian mansions with the sparkling sea just beyond, will show the town at its most photogenic. And the tennis isn’t bad either.
Entry lists are always a bit of a scramble in the few short weeks of the grass season. Here in the UK, the WTA tournament weeks scrunch up together like double-deckers in a traffic jam: Surbiton, Nottingham, Birmingham, Eastbourne and finally Wimbledon. Every sore shoulder or tweaked tendon is a challenge: pull out or play through it?
But if tournament directors get the scheduling headaches, spectators can also look forward to happy surprises. A player high in the rankings who suffers an early exit at Birmingham – or, for the men, at Queens this week – might just squeeze a late entry into the Eastbourne schedules.
Andy Murray was tipped out of the Queens Club tournament on Monday by Alex De Minaur, the talented roving Aussie and one of Eastbourne’s favourite adopted sons. Could we get a bonus glimpse of a Murray, or a Williams? It’s happened before – at Devonshire Park last year, Serena wowed a gleeful Centre Court in doubles action.
Last summer, home spectators revelled in a Super Tuesday when the talented Brit trio of Dart, Burrage and Boulter powered into the last 16, all against higher-ranked opposition. So let’s take a closer look at the British hopes. They are a generation of talent, not flying back in from hothouse academies in California or Barcelona but working through junior ranks on home territory.
They are grounded, best mates – when not facing each other across the net! – and in love with the sport. Last year, I was privileged to interview Jodie Burrage after a breathless victory – which had followed an equally breathless 300-mile drive with Dad from Yorkshire, where a tournament had overrun. (It’s in the parents’ contract somewhere, in extremely small print…).
Katie Boulter – who defeated Burrage in a terrific Nottingham final last week – and Harriet Dart are no different. No longer teenagers, and no longer content with the valiant failure of bowing out in qualifying rounds. Add in Katie Swan and Guernsey’s favourite daughter, Heather Watson, and you Devonshire Park loyalists have a quintet of Brit girls to cheer loudly.
But, before we get a little too chauvinist, let us broaden the perspective. Petra Kvitova is returning Eastbourne champion and, steering through a long week, her experience will show through. Who has the best chance of toppling Petra?
Several factors will combine: fitness and avoidance of injury, stamina in what may well be a blazing hot week of weather, mental focus and match management, temperament. And, if not the luck of the draw, at least a steerable passage through the rounds, as the 64 of Monday morning narrow down to the two finalists of Saturday afternoon.
Three players in the women’s singles have special Eastbourne pedigree and seem always to be a natural fit with the Devonshire Park. Ons Jabeur was scarcely known when she tipped out Johanna Konta to reach the 2019 semi-finals, but now she is known and respected as a fine player as well as a brilliant ambassador for African tennis. Jelena Ostapenko, focused and consistent, should see the Quarters as a minimum target, while Russian Daria Kasatkina is playing with dignity as well as canny skill, as she reminds us that sport really can cross frontiers, build bridges and outshine the darkest of political depths.
And there are two others to watch out for. Jessica Pegula is regarded by many observers as a future Grand Slam champion, with all the qualities. And her US compatriot Coco Gauff is an intriguing option. Still only a precocious 19-year-old, not flawless but blessed with awesome attacking talent, she is overdue for a title. Coco – who is also an honest and articulate voice of her generation – is a breath of fresh air. Can a few lungfuls of Eastbourne’s fresh ozone inspire her?
The Herald Final Four? Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina, Coco Gauff, Jess Pegula
Meanwhile, the Men’s Singles has always suffered a little from being a sort of undercard. But among the entries are some stunning young players – all of whose game is based on power, speed, and attacking instinct. The 2022 Final, with Taylor Fritz just edging Italian Lorenzo Sonego, was an absolute thriller. Those two young tyros are back, together with the powerhouse pair of Alex De Minaur – the top seed – and Tommy Paul. Look no further than those four for the title – and be prepared for quick evasive action if you happen to be sitting in their sightlines!
And finally, one of Eastbourne’s best-kept secrets: the Wheelchair Tennis. Players of international calibre such as Alfie Hewitt and Gordon Reid have put the wheelchair events in centre stage, while Lucy Shuker – brilliant player and outstanding advocate for the sport – will head up this year’s Eastbourne event. Watch it and you’ll be hooked.
So – are we all set? Genial, knowledgeable, bustling crowds. Sunglasses, sunhat, sun cream. Ball crews poised and crouching. And the sonorous booming tones of the world’s top umpire, the Pavarotti of tennis, Kader Nouni: “Quiet please! Play!”