Dreaming of tennis talent in Eastbourne - and hoping sport's on way to normality

Are we getting our lives back? Eastbourne sporting groups are finally returning to life – getting a ball from A to B, or indeed running, cycling, or even rambling from A to B. And that pinnacle of the sporting summer, the Devonshire Park Tennis Week, is taking shape too.

Friday, 2nd April 2021, 10:00 am
Devonshire Park is unlikely to be packed like this for a while, but some fans are set to see some tennis in the flesh this June / Picture: Getty

I compared notes the other day with Charlotte James, who acts as head of media for the WTA at Eastbourne. Melbourne-based Charlotte had just steered her way skilfully through the Australian Open.

Stop-start, players in and out of quarantine, spectators admitted and then excluded again. Some late-evening matches were interrupted by spectators being shepherded out of the arena as their curfew approached.

“It’s been a year and a lead-up and tournament unlike any other. I’m still very much hoping to be allowed to come home to work on Eastbourne again this year. Fingers crossed! I see from pictures that the Devonshire Park courts are shimmering green as ever – Danny Negus and his team are doing stellar work as ever.

Leone Gravata helps distribute Easter eggs bought by Eastbourne Borough

“The confirmation of the Devonshire Park week is a clear statement of intent. The grass court season is short and intense, and so many players treat Eastbourne as a crucial preparation for Wimbledon. So more than ever, the world’s finest will be queuing up to enter.

“We are thinking of you all as you ease out of your own lockdown. Ours was tough, and it’s not 100% over, but there is light - and life - at the end of that tunnel. Hang in there, and we’ll see you in June under those familiar blue skies!”

In 2019, the Nature Valley Tournament attracted 13 of the world’s top 20 women players. What price 16 or 17 of them this time around? The men’s competition, sometimes regarded as an undercard, was also over-subscribed.

But for local enthusiasts, what price an admission ticket? Sporting venues are still at the mercy of government directives, and this week the LTA has released first ticketing details. Ironically, though, the joy of the Devonshire Park’s milling crowds and relative informality is the very factor that might undermine it.

Year after year, we are used to the shared experience of People’s Weekend – lots of outside court action for a tenner or so, and even that low admission fee goes mainly to charity. We jostle, in the nicest sense, for a decent view and we file courteously in and out of the quite narrow walkways. We meet and greet, bump into old friends, and remind ourselves that this town really does merit its Village Eastbourne tag.

Maybe, just maybe, we might need to wait one more year before the sociability returns properly. The main courts, with allocated seating and proper distancing, would present less of an issue. The LTA has this week indicated a likely target of 25% of capacity. So the 2021 tournament might just be tennis, but not as Eastbourne knows it.

Meanwhile, the rest of Eastbourne’s sporting community will not be letting the grass roots grow under their feet.

Golf is back, and many local golfers believe it should never have been away. My cab driver the other day – yes, Mark Lester, I did warn you you’d get a mention – is busting for his first round of 18 up at the Downs Club. “It’s as healthy as you can get. Three hours or so out in the fresh air with a golfing partner, great exercise, great views of glorious Sussex, and great for your sanity and well-being!”

Football at step five and six is back from next weekend (10 April) with Eastbourne Town joining the group stage of a Southern Combination competition.

And right across the town, with a burst of exhilaration, youth sport is also back. Hundreds of youngsters can finally leave behind that worn patch of back-garden grass and rejoin their mates and their coaches for proper, organised sessions.

For the time being, it may be coaching rather than competition, as Borough Youth chairman Mostyn Price explains. “Almost all of the leagues in Sussex youth football were curtailed back in the autumn. Here at Priory Lane, we have all our boys and girls back to their training sessions, but we expect to have competitive fixtures for our under-15 and under-16 squads, who play in the Kent League.”

Slow, steady and patient, then. But let’s finish with two positive snippets from Priory Lane: one to tempt the sweet tooth, the other to warm the heart.

The club has used Just Giving donations, from recent live-streamed matches, to fund a huge Easter egg hand-out at the Conquest Hospital children’s wards, and through an Eastbourne charity supporting under-privileged families. Manager Danny Bloor was spotted on Wednesday dishing out armfuls of the choccy goodies.

And there was a heartening development in the saga of the Priory Lane intruders. After the club’s ground suffered late-night break-ins and distressing damage by youngsters, commercial manager Sian Ansell received a more welcome visit earlier this week.

It was from one of the youths involved in the incident at the club, along with his mum. He came to apologise and take responsibility for his actions that day.

The club told him how it impacted them and their volunteers , hoping it will prevent him from being involved in anything like that again.

An encouraging outcome. Where there is damage – and not only physical – there is always room for repair. Perhaps now Priory Lane – with all our sporting communities – can leave the frustrations of lockdown behind, and look to the light.