Legends of Devonshire

When considering the top names in women’s tennis, past and present, there’s no shortage of names on the list; Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Justine Henin and the Williams sisters, to name just a few.

And while there’s plenty that all these legends of the game have in common, such as the wealth of Grand Slam titles to their name or the fact they’ve all climbed to the number one ranking at some point in their glittering careers, there’s one more connection that may not automatically spring to mind - they’ve all graced the Devonshire Park Courts here in Eastbourne, too.

The calibre of names on the list of previous entrants for the Eastbourne International Tournament is nothing short of impressive.

Some of the world’s best have contested for the title here on the Sunshine Coast, with the world-renowned quality of the Devonshire Park grass courts easily tempting competitors.

Martina Navratilova, in particular, was a fan of the venue and paid countless visits here between 1976 and 2006. It seems fitting that she holds the record for the most Eastbourne Championship singles titles at 11.

The tournament started in 1974 and soon became a key feature of the tennis calendar as a warm-up for the Wimbledon Championships, which commence a week later.

Originally just a tournament on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, it was only females who competed up until 2009, when it became open to men as part of the ATP World Tour.

Right from the start, Eastbourne attracted the big names, with the inaugural final being played between Chris Evert and Virginia Wade. It was a straight-sets win for the American, who later went on to claim two more titles, beating Wade again in the 1976 final.

Evert won her third and final title with a flourish after one of the most memorable matches in the history of the event.

Before a ball had even been hit, the tie promised to be an exciting spectacle as the previous year’s finalists battled it out on centre court again.

Navratilova had come out on top in the 1978 final to claim her first Eastbourne International singles title with a 9-7 tie-break victory in the third set.

However, Evert exacted swift revenge on her fellow American by turning the tables and taking the trophy the following year in an even closer contest. Both the first two sets went the full twelve games, with Evert and Navratilova winning the first and second set respectively.

The two could barely be separated heading into the deciding set and it eventually took 24 games to settle the score, with Evert claiming a 13-11 tie-break win to seal the title.

The USA’s dominance seen in the opening five years of the tournament continued when Tracy Austin joined the list of honours, winning back-to-back titles in 1980 and 1981. However, that accomplishment was later cast into the shadows by what Martina Navratilova was about to achieve.

Navratilova was in the prime of her career and it showed as she dictated the next decade of the tournament, scooping nine of the ten trophies available. The only other competitor to get a look in was Helena Sukova, who beat Navratilova in the 1987 final.

If there was ever any doubt of Navratilova’s prowess in Eastbourne, you only need to glance at her additional six titles with doubles partner Pam Shriver to know that this was a contest that belonged to her.

Following Navratilova’s reign, the title went on to change hands on numerous occasions, with only Chanda Rubin and Justine Henin winning it in consecutive years.

Along the way, Lindsay Davenport, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Kim Clijsters, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki all got their names on the prestigious trophy, with France’s Marion Bartoli being the most recent winner after beating current Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the 2011 final.

The tournament, considered one of the top 30 in the world, began facing sponsorship problems in 2007 and was threatened to be moved from East Sussex to London.

However, a general consensus agreed to merge the Eastbourne International and the Nottingham Open, which meant the inclusion of men as of 2009.

Having seen their female counterparts enjoy success in Eastbourne, world-class male tennis stars did not hesitate to sign up, with names such as Lleyton Hewitt, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Michael Llodra and Janko Tipsarevic all making appearances, the latter of who narrowly lost to world number 25 Andreas Seppi in last year’s final.

While it may take time for the men’s singles competition to build up as impressive a history as that of the women’s, or for one player to match the remarkable success of Navratilova, they’re not for lack of trying.

Despite clashing with the historic Queen’s Club Tennis Championships in London, Eastbourne continues to attract top-drawer names to Devonshire Park, never disappointing the ever-growing number of expectant spectators.

And with another sterling line-up and bumper crowd ready to enjoy this year’s AEGON International, it doesn’t look like the popularity of Eastbourne’s annual big event, among players or the public, will start to decrease any time soon.