Eastbourne will relish becoming a town of tennis - and with proper crowds too

It is often said that the British are passionate tennis fans – for two weeks each year. If you live in Eastbourne, you can make that three.

From the end of next week, the Devonshire Park will again play host to a world-class tennis event which will make us the focus – and the envy – of the sporting nation. The WTA Rothesay International will bring many of the world’s top women players to our town, and the parallel LTA men’s event will welcome an impressive list of entrants too. Already, if you walk or work around town, you’ll be aware of the busy activity.

And from next Saturday, June 18th, the action is back. Year after year, we have been used to the shared experience of People’s Weekend: lots of outside court action for a tenner or so, and even that low admission fee goes mainly to charity. We jostle, in the nicest sense, for a decent view and we file courteously in and out of the quite narrow walkways. We meet and greet, bump into old friends, and remind ourselves that this town really does merit its Village Eastbourne tag.

Action from the 2021 men's final at Devonshire Park / Picture: Jon Rigby

It's been a while. The summer of 2020, ironically in blazing sunshine, was cursed with Covid-19 and we were in total, miserable lockdown. Not a hope of a tennis tournament, then. And even in June 2021 the world was still a very nervous place. Face coverings had become either a wearying necessity, or a little fashion statement. Social distancing had become the new motto in our daily dealings.

The Eastbourne week did go ahead, but with 25% spectator capacity it felt like a pale and slightly unreal substitute. No criticism in the least of the tournament organisers: director Gavin Fletcher and his team worked wonders simply to stage a tournament at all, and – despite an unusually damp and grey week – the genius who is head groundsman Danny Negus still produced Wimbledon-class courts.

But now we are back, and the whole tournament will ripple with that dash of informality that brings great lofty sport down to earth.

Crowds take a break at Devonshire Park / Picture: Jon Rigby

In terms of status, the Eastbourne week – branded the Rothesay International for 2022 with its new and generous sponsors – is right up there. No small-town venue in the world is ranked higher. As a WTA 500 tournament, it sits alongside Berlin and just a notch below Rome or Madrid. Imagine that!

In terms of character and atmosphere, though, Eastbourne is genuinely unique. Not an out-of-town arena with clanking prefabricated steel, but a charming oasis of green at the heart of the town. A stroll down from the railway station past mellowed Edwardian villas, on pavements laid with warm Victorian bricks.

Walk an extra two hundred yards, and you are on the bracing – oh, very well, quite breezy – seafront with shimmering views to Beachy Head. Take half an hour for lunch, and the acclaimed Towner Art Gallery is right next door -with, incidentally, a rather fine view across the courts from its café, after you have revelled in the Ravilious Collection.

Stand on the lawns between the courts, and listen. The chatter of school parties, the caw-caw of the sea-birds – this is surely the only venue in the world where a player’s ball-toss can be interrupted by a low-flying seagull. The sonorous boom of Kader Nouni, the world’s most famous umpire and the Pavarotti of tennis. And, above all, the thwick-thwick-thwock of a breathlessly tight rally and the burst of applause that follows.

Jeļena Ostapenko lifts the women's Eastbourne trophy last year / Picture: Jon Rigby

It’s a dangerous question to raise – but perhaps the top of the women’s game has slightly fewer egos than the men’s. The latter has its giants, and actually one or two of them have dropped in to play Eastbourne in recent years – including Murray and Djokovic – and they sometimes seem to dominate, to be turned by the media into great, titanic figures who will one day be etched in stone in some tennis equivalent of the US presidents of Mount Rushmore.

Women’s tennis has a very human dimension. The WTA circuit is populated with eager, talented young players who spend almost as much time in the airport departure lounges as on the practice courts. It’s far from uncommon to find a parent involved as a coach – when a top seed like Camila Giorgi steps on to court, you will not fail to spot the frizzled grey haystack hair of dad Sergio at the front of the stands.

And that is not even faintly a side-swipe at that particular passionate Italian parent. At the Devonshire Park, Sergio is a welcome face and a natural fit – because the Eastbourne Rothesay International is tennis with a human face. This town just cannot wait for Saturday week!