Life or Death? tennis in Eastbourne is much less serious than that...

Monica Puig enjoys a laugh wih the ball girls in the ice cream truck - picture: Lydia Redman
Monica Puig enjoys a laugh wih the ball girls in the ice cream truck - picture: Lydia Redman

By Kevin Anderson

All respect is due, of course, to the legendary Bill Shankly, but actually sport isn’t more important than life and death, and at the Eastbourne Aegon Tournament, the sense of proportion has certainly not been lost.

The players often say it, and the visitors always notice it. Apart from some changeable coastal weather, the town has been looking really good this week, and there surely is no more amiable venue for high-level tennis. This is not Dubai or Singapore; it is a relatively small English town that consciously keeps its human scale.

Due attention is paid to the formal aspects: organisation is immaculate, and there are rules and protocols to follow. But the best of those protocols are woven into the sport itself, rather than imposed. The spectators - well, almost all of them - know that you only move seats during the changeover and never during play, and that there is a little code of when to applaud and when to keep silent. Almost all the spectators know their tennis, and the more casual visitors quickly learn.

Security is also a case in point. I’m certain that English people have a natural antipathy towards people in yellow jackets, or dark suits and dark glasses. We know they are there for a purpose, but they are somehow tolerated rather than embraced. Here, players are supposed to be escorted to and fro, either by a courteous blazered volunteer or by a professional steward who has passed his Level 2 big-and-humourless certificate (I would say big-and-ugly, but his Mum might be reading this...)

But Eastbourne has a knack of subverting the system. Turn your back, fellas, and whoops, a player has escaped her minder. It’s mid-afternoon on the central lawn, and look - who is that smiling diminutive tennis-skirted figure? It’s Martina Hingis, fresh off Court Two, and she trips happily across the grass, pausing for a selfie with a couple of fans and actually carrying her own cardboard box of belongings! When you’ve been a Grand Slam champion - not to mention a Strictly Come Dancing contestant - you don’t actually need an ego, and Eastbourne is thrilled to let you relax.

Meanwhile, those volunteers are a whole quiet army of goodwill and dedication. They patiently give directions, sort out the chap with the wrong ticket, point the lady to the nearest loo, and improvise an answer to the unexpected question. “I’ve bought three tickets by mistake, instead of two,” pleads Phyllis from Burgess Hill. “Do you think they’ll give me a refund?” Ticket desk just over there in the back of the Towner, Phyllis. “Do the London trains leave until midnight?” wonders Eric from East Croydon. There’s an app for that, Eric...

Alison - “you don’t really need my surname, everyone just knows me as Alison the marshall” - has been helping at the tournament for an admirable thirty years. She is - and she will not mind me saying it - a little bit like your Grandma, or the lady who used to teach you when you were ten, and knows your faults. “Back at the start I was one of the car drivers, and the players were a bit more naïve. They would arrive at the station and look bewildered and lost. Now most of the girls are quite a lot more worldly wise. They are coached to be stars, but I know they are still just girls underneath.

“I remember Martina - Navratilova, not Hingis - in the very early days. She was lovely, and she was one of the first to be a personality rather than just a player. I remember her once asking me where on earth she could get soya milk in Eastbourne on a Sunday night! Now the players all have their own dieticians, I dare say.”

“I’m not chauffeuring any more, but now I do some chaperoning with the ball-boys and ball-girls. It has all got more organised and efficient over the years. But I think the town still loves the tennis week. We know how to put on a show, and what we really do is show the town at its very best. People don’t always realise what a huge community effort it is - hundreds and hundreds of people working for nothing expect the pleasure of it all.”

Thank you, Alison. You are Eastbourne with a human face - and tennis with a smile on its face. Life and death? Nah.