Why it really doesn't matter who wins Eastbourne's tennis titles

Breathe it in! Eastbourne’s tagline was never more apt than at Devonshire Park this week.
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The weather, the sporting excellence, the sheer greedy enjoyment of socializing – we have grabbed it by the lungful.

Last weekend – goodness, doesn’t it seem a long time ago now! – saw the tournament open with the usual excitement and anticipation, with just one or two anxious glances at the sky, but above all with gratefulness.

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Since its inception in 1974, the tennis tournament has grown, expanded and embedded itself in our town’s traditions and culture. From small and tentative beginnings, through the astonishing growth of the Evert and Navratilova years, to the huge, vibrant celebration of sport that we now enjoy, it is warp and weft with the town.

Large crowds and blue skies - a theme of the week at Devonshire Park, where life is back to normal / Picture: GettyLarge crowds and blue skies - a theme of the week at Devonshire Park, where life is back to normal / Picture: Getty
Large crowds and blue skies - a theme of the week at Devonshire Park, where life is back to normal / Picture: Getty

But two of those years – 2020 and 2021 – have been grim. A total cancellation two years ago, when the Devonshire Park’s shimmering green lawns lay empty and we tiptoed around in bewilderment. And then last June, a tournament scaled down in every respect – numbers, activity, energy. Face-masks and little vaccination cards and nervousness.

Human beings need to hug – if not always physically, then certainly in spirit. Where, last year, we had tiptoed around each other as if in some Tudor courtly dance, now this week we have chatted with strangers, made new friendships, shared the sport and the small-talk. My own privilege – and believe me, it really is a privilege – as a reporter is to roam pretty much everywhere on the Devonshire Park grounds.

"Excuse me, is that seat empty? Are you here just for the day? Oh, the whole week? From Scotland? Who’s your favourite player? Yep, I thought she was lucky with that net-cord, but isn’t she playing well!"

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The standing courts, with their quite narrow walkways, can be even more fun. I squeezed in the other morning to watch a Harriet Dart third set (which she won!), between a couple of locals – “we think it’s our fourteenth Devonshire Park but it might be fifteenth” – and a couple of nineteen-year-olds camping at Pevensey Bay.

Young or old, the Eastbourne tennis fans simply adopt the players. I asked GB favourite Katie Boulter how she had found the nicely partisan Centre Court crowd:

“I think it made all the difference. At deuce I was a little bit nervous and started to get a little bit of goose bumps and I could feel myself actually noticing the crowd and the occasion and the moment. They got me over the line. That's the difference between having your home crowd, and they can really lift you when you need it.”

The success of the Brits has run parallel with the tournament triumph. The generation of youngsters, several of them nurtured through LTA scholarship schemes, have suddenly grown up. Harriet Dart, Jodie Burrage, Katie Boulter all notched excellent victories over more experienced opponents. On the men’s side, Cam Norrie continues to grow in stature and young hopefuls Ryan Peniston and Jack Draper are winning rounds too.

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When players, coaches and officials have time to draw breath – and probably that will not be until after Wimbledon – they will surely see the Eastbourne Rothesay as one of the tournaments where British tennis turned a corner.

And meanwhile, quite a lot of people will have earned Sunday off. The scores of stewards and volunteers, smiling and patient – honourable mention for Court Two, where senior marshall Neil Proctor and his disparate team absolutely nailed the trick of “efficient but never officious”. Those astonishing ball crews – over a hundred in total, from the Cavendish School and Eastbourne College – who have trained for months to perfect their sporting choreography. The list is simply too long.

Who will win the Saturday finals? It is narrowing down nicely as the Herald goes to press, and the Centre Court will be brimming. But in the best sense, it doesn’t matter who claims the titles. At Eastbourne tennis, everyone’s a winner.