Eastbourne's tennis week has done more than just survive
Tennis, but not quite as we know it. Bubbles, one-way systems and endless Covid tests. The frustration of having to keep your distance, at a Devonshire Park which normally thrives on informality. And, on Monday, drenching downpours that had even the seagulls diving for cover.
But the tennis tournament hallmarked with Eastbourne’s name has survived almost half a century since 1974 – and by midweek the sun had returned, and the smiles were as broad as ever, and the tennis was simply exhilarating.
Huge credit to Gavin Fletcher and his team of organisers. Talk about not making a drama out of a crisis: at mid-morning on Monday Gavin looked across the lawns, from under a large umbrella, with not even a frown. “We can’t control the weather, but we can lay plans for it. We’ll be back on track tomorrow!” And they were.
A massive catch-up schedule on Tuesday was completed without a hitch. Extra hours – until well past sunset – played, and extra courts brought into service. The crowds, even at 25%, were loving it, and the matches brought breathtaking tight competition – and a good few surprises.
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This, we thought, might be the Week of Youth. A whole clutch of the most exciting, precocious talent stood out among the entries. Canadian Bianca Andreescu, US teen Coco Gauff, Iga Swiatek from Poland, as well as Sofia Kenin, who sadly had to withdraw with injury.
But by the end of Wednesday, the Next-Gen youngsters had been put in their place. Significantly, each of those young ladies had claimed impressive first-round victories – but just as tellingly, each of them fell on Wednesday to opponents they would have hoped to beat.
Tournament success is built on more than a single victory. It is about momentum and consistency – and the players who did make it to Thursday’s quarter-finals included some who have been around the circuit and, perhaps, learned to navigate and manage tournaments on the WTA tour.
Not the new wave of talent, whose time will come very soon, nor the golden generation now around or past the 30 mark – the Kerbers and Kvitovas, the Williams Sisters and Wozniacki. But the in-betweens: the players with enough experience to handle the pressure of travelling, tournament life, and indeed the new Covid regimes.
Not to be immodest – but last week’s Eastbourne Herald preview picked out three players to keep an eye on: Anett Kontaveit, Daria Kasatkina, Jelena Ostapenko. We said: "At a tournament as important as Eastbourne, nobody signs to make up the numbers. Watch out for Kontaveit, Kasatkina, Ostapenka, all three of them experienced, talented and underrated at 31, 36 and 44 in the WTA rankings. Not that those rankings are incorrect – just that they reflect the confused and patched-up 2021 tennis calendar, full of quarantines and scaled-down schedules. Players are choosing their tournaments more carefully, rather than racing from one airport to the next. Anett, Daria and Jelena have opted for Eastbourne, and they’d love to stay all week...”
All three have made it – with some superb performances – to Thursday’s quarter-finals. And, whatever happens in the second half of the week, they prove the strength and depth of the sport.
The women’s Round of 16 brought more than one surprise. Swift starts did not always guarantee success. Iga Swiatek – who had played immaculately to despatch Heather Watson in Tuesday evening’s epic – dominated Daria Kasatkina earlier, the Russian girl looking frustrated and rather downbeat. But Kasatkina is a real competitor and she wrenched her way back to dominate the next two sets, and a grand victory by 4-6 6-1 6-0.
And like Swiatek, two of the other New Generation youngsters fell short. Bianca Andreescu has had quite tricky year and we probably did not see the best of her at this year’s Eastbourne: Anett Kontaveit, an accomplished and sometimes under-rated player in her own right, played assured and error-free tennis to put out the Canadian in stright sets.
Meanwhile Coco Gauff came second best in a fascinating encounter on Court Two. Gauff, just 17, has a dazzling range of skills and a style of her own. She strikes every ball with a flourish, she takes risks, and she is keener to get to the net than any other woman player here at the Viking International – but that often left the door wide open for canny opponent Anastasia Sevastova to pass her.
Goff narrowly edged the first set, but Sevastova, gaining confidence and realising that she had more than a Lucky Loser’s chance, took full advantage of any Gauff error and eased through in three sets. Be in no doubt, though, that Coco is an exceptional, exciting talent – and look out for her at Wimbledon, where, on the right day and in the right mood, she could really make waves.
Have we focused too much on the women’s game? Well, that is where Eastbourne’s tennis tradition is rooted, and the current tournament has, in WTA parlance, 500 status, whereas as the LTA men’s competition is a lower-ranked 250. So we have never – except in guest appearances – seen the Andy Murrays or the Nadals and Federers on the Devonshire Park courts.
But the guys have certainly entertained so far. Our last Brit standing, Liam Broady, may still be on the learning curve but he roused the Centre Court crowd, standing strong against formidable Aussie Alex De Minaur. It’s mainly about power, pace and physique in the men’s game, but De Minaur adds extra dimensions, mixing in a finessed drop shot or a perfect lob.
De Minaur and others – Sonego, Pospisil, Bublik among others – will be looking not just for a successful Eastbourne week but also to make a strong impact at Wimbledon next week. Remember – you saw them first at the Devonshire Park!