2019 was our last “normal” year, and then 2020 was wiped out by the wretched Covid-19. Even last summer, the tournament was pared to the bone, with reduced crowd numbers and an atmosphere of caution, almost fear. Now, at long last, the tennis is back.
A WEEK’S WEATHER – IN A DAY
Saturday had dawned with promise: brilliant sunshine and steadily rising temperatures. And as eager spectators filed in on People’s Day, it was definitely shorts and shirtsleeves weather – for a while. But the weather gods of the English South Coast are a mischievous lot, and towards the end of morning the blue skies had been replaced by an insidious layer of grey, the warmth had not quite materialised, and – confounding the forecast – we actually had a veil of drizzle which held up play for half an hour or so.
In truth, the actual rainfall was minimal, but just enough to leave surfaces greasy and tricky for the players – not to mention the potential damage to those immaculate carpets of green which Danny Negus and his staff have produced. Negus is very nearly an anagram of genius, and it’s a tag well deserved by that modest and cheerful maestro of the courts.
Anyway, by late lunchtime those churlish weather gods had relented, and we were back to sunshine, not baking hot but then in fairness to the players, the temperatures were just right for long gruelling rallies, hammering serves and lightning sprints to the net. All perfect then – except for the wind, it wasn’t a deal-breaker but a wee bit breezier than we’d have liked – and oddly for our coastal town, it was a northerly. When Spain has 44 degrees and parts of the world are in drought, Eastbourne has really no cause to grouse…
BEST OF THE ACTION
In the sixteen qualifying matches completed, the standard of play was astonishingly high. Tight, even contests that often turned on a single rally or a single inspired shot. If this is what we get in just the qualifying rounds, there is an awesome week ahead as some of the strongest and most talented players in the world step out on to our green grass.
For this reporter, two matches stood out. First up on Court Four was young British tyro Liam Broady, powerful and mobile and – in his recent form – really hard to play against. Across the net, a diametric opposite: canny, enigmatic Frenchman Hugo Gaston. Both left-handers, but not many other parallels. Gaston had some touches of real finesse, some sweet drop-shots and lovely disguise. But Liam was absolutely on fire, and whatever Hugo tried, Liam hammered back at him. The first set was a 6-0 wipe-out, and the second was actually closer than the 6-2 outcome. Gaston tried everything – including an underarm serve – but Broady was unstoppable, and he could well go deep into the men’s tournament this week.
Meanwhile on Court Two, another classic match was developing. Heather Watson, Guernsey’s favourite daughter and a hugely popular figure at Eastbourne, faced Urszula Radwanska, the young Polish player whose older sister is actually a former Eastbourne champion. As with Broady-Gaston, two contrasting styles and temperaments. Heather plays with passion and heart, and she shares every emotion: it’s impossible not to like her. Urszula is quick, intelligent, full of expert technique – and even a quite partisan home crowd soon recognized her excellence.
Watson opened smartly and was two-love up before Radwanska had got her bearings; but the Polish lady stuck to her game plan and levered herself back into the match, taking the first set 6-3. Come on Heather! The Devonshire Park crowd are never slow to adopt a player, and Watson is really at home here – and she responded with visible determination. The next two sets were achingly close, but Heather did just enough, taking them 6-4 6-4 to set the standard and point the path for the week to come. Eastbourne knows it tennis, loves all the players in this friendliest of tournaments. But please forgive us if we love our GB players just a teeny bit more…
NOW THEN - NUMBER OFF FROM THE RIGHT…
With Centre Court and Court Number One not yet in use, Saturday’s qualifying was spread across four match courts. Ah, so that would be Courts 2, 3, 4 and 5? Well, not quite. Here at the Devonshire Park, this most distinctive of venues, we do things a little bit differently. Court Two is the one with the impressive seated stands on its south and west sides – excellent views of the action and lots of noisy ooh-ahh reaction.
A word, incidentally, for the cheerful and resourceful team of stewards on Court Two, skillfully filling the seats that become vacant in each changeover. It’s a recipe for ninety seconds of chaotic log-jams but the stewards have uncanny skills at spotting the three seats together in Row D, or the perfect in Row B for the lady with the walking stick. Not to mention snaffling your Herald reporter into a seat with a decent view where he won’t be a nuisance.
But back to the numbering: three more match courts – presumably Courts Three, Four and Five? Ah. Not quite. Actually there isn’t a Court Three – don’t ask. There are certainly Courts Four and Five, the ones with the walkways in between, with that different kind of intimacy and access that only the Devonshire Park can offer – so close to the players that you could reach out and offer them a bottle of water (please don’t, incidentally – there are clear protocols on that sort of conduct).
And the other match action? There’s no Court Six – well, actually there is one but it’s one of several practice courts, where you can actually get a terrific view of the Great and the Gifted warming up and getting used to the shimmering, perfect grass surfaces here. But for the last slices of Day One action, you have to look a little harder. Court Twelve is Devonshire Park’s best kept secret: it’s tucked away at the far end, alongside the theatre access road. And it’s absolutely magical. Ringed with majestic trees and little stone walls, it forms an amphitheatre which could probably stage a piece of open-air Shakespeare.
On this midsummer day, there was no Puck or Titania, but the tennis was its own drama, live and unscripted. Fittingly, and with a warmth and affection that you could almost touch, this court played host to top Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, who raced to an impressive 6-3 6-1 victory over Australia’s Kimberley Birrell. And later, as the shadows lengthened slightly, we had a taste of the talented potential of Alicia Dudeney. The West Sussex youngster was defeated – but far from blown away – by the hugely experienced Donna Vekic.
But this quaint little arena, this glade of green, actually gave us a glimpse of what the Devonshire Park really is. Assured, unfussy staging. Sport and friendship interwoven. Rivals, but never enemies. A microcosm. If the whole world could only be like the Devvy’s Court Twelve, we’d be a happier world.
One day down. Now, a bright Sunday morning after a dramatic night of coastal thunderstorms. Bring on Day Two!