Eastbourne’s international tennis week is in full swing – but who can spot a champion?
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A bustling weekend had seen some gripping contests as players in both men’s and women’s qualifying rounds battled for a precious place in the main draw. And on Monday, the bigger names joined them. British hopes this year are centering on a clutch of bright youngsters, now maturing from eager teens into canny early twenties.
Katie Boulter was leading the home challenge, having triumphed a fortnight ago in the slightly lower ranked WTA Nottingham tournament. Straight into the main draw on a wild card, Boulter enjoyed a relatively relaxed Monday, on the practice courts and in the press conferences – where she was in philosophical mode.
“Nothing comes without some ups and downs and of course I’m going to keep striving for that but I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got different steps I need to take,” she said. “But by the end of the year, I’ve obviously got my own goals but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I think I’ve got a good opportunity to keep pushing on and I’m just going to keep doing my best. Nothing in life is taken for granted!”
The Brit girls are enjoying their best grass season for years; and “girls” is by no means a patronising term. They are a little generation who have grown up together. Boulter at 26 is the older sister, but she forms a trio – and a tight bond – with Harriet Dart and Jodie Burrage. Harriet dug deep against the strong challenge of Chinese player Zhang, on a Centre Court that briefly became a wind tunnel – a south-westerly springing up off the Channel, and drilling its way between the two high Centre Court stands. Well, we do love our coastal situation, calm or breezy…
Dart won through, to resounding home cheers, while Jodie Burrage was once again putting us all through the tumble dryer, losing her opening set to Lauren Davis but battling back dramatically to take the match 4-6 6-4 6-3. The Tuesday schedules permitted Burrage a day off – which could not have been more deserved. After two epic qualifying matches – the second of which had seen her defeated – Jodie had got what the actors might label a call-back.
“We were half-way home to Surrey, on the M23, and got a call to offer a lucky loser place. I was completely exhausted, and playing through some injuries, and my first response was no – keep driving! But we got home, thought about it, sorted out some doggie daycare at Mum’s for my lovely black Labrador, and turned the car around…”
And Jodie will surely have been taking a little peek at Tuesday afternoon’s showdown between Coco Gauff and Bernarda Pera: the Centre Court will surely witness a GB-US classic on Wednesday.
In the meantime, though, the trio had become a British duo as Boulter dipped out to Croatia’s Petra Martic on Tuesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, among the favourites in the Women’s draw, it was actually getting harder to spot a likely champion. Injuries and illnesses have been taking their toll, including previous winner Petra Kvitova and widely tipped Elena Rybakina, down with an unnamed virus. Those withdrawals early on Tuesday did mean yet another recall for lucky loser – and Devonshire Park favourite – Heather Watson, who found herself facing Camila Giorgi. Heart and passion against style and precision; and a reminder that there are as many ways to win a tennis match as there are players.
Might it even reflect national temperaments? Without getting too mischievous with stereotyping, Jelena Ostapenko does show a certain Baltic doggedness – occasionally cross with a line-call but never extravagant with any needless energy, and she efficiently overcame an inconsistent Barbora Strycova – who had replaced Kvitova.
Earlier the exciting little Italian pocket-rocket Jasmine Paolini sparkled on Court One, but then fizzled out a bit against Ons Jabeur, who certainly doesn’t do flamboyant, but could well be on a steady march towards the Final. Jabeur has many admirers, also for her off-court persona and dignity – and her walk back across the lawns from Centre Court was delayed by a hundred and one spectators wanting selfies. And Ons obliged every single one. That’s the way to do it.
What about the guys? The GB men are not strongly represented this year. A rumour of an Andy Murray appearance proved to be just that. Cam Norrie played at Queens last week but is taking Wimbledon preparations cautiously. Jack Draper – whom many regard as a certain Top 10 player in due course, is battling injury. The sole GB survivor by the end of Tuesday was Liam Broady, who overcame the 6’5” threat of young Jan Choinski in an all-British clash.
And so we approach the half-way mark. The merry swirl of qualifying matches, and the weekend swirl of cheerful crowds, gives way to the serious stuff. Wednesday: last 16. Thursday (as long as the predicted rain holds off): quarter-finals. Friday: the semi-finals, and a place in front of a packed house – and live BBC cameras – for Saturday’s Rothesay International finals. Stay tuned…