By Kevin Anderson
The players often say it, the visitors always notice it, and the tourism staff have captured it nicely with that strapline “Eastbourne – breathe it in…”.
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. And the more casual visitors quickly learn.
The tournament generates remarkable loyalty. Sitting in the South Stand next week, immediately in front of our press seats, will be a delightful lady, a retired teacher from the Midlands, who has booked exactly the same seat – and the same hotel room – for the last fifteen years. We will exchange the same anecdotes and discuss the prospects for today’s matches and tomorrow’s weather. I cannot even recall her name, but I know she would not miss the Eastbourne tournament for the world.
Security is also a case in point. It matters, of course, but English people have a natural antipathy towards people in yellow jackets, or dark suits and dark glasses. They are there for a purpose, but tolerated rather than embraced.
At the Devonshire Park, 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.
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 skips 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.
It is not lost on the players. Week after week on the WTA (and LTA) tour, they find themselves playing in some vast but under-populated arenas. Here at the Devonshire Park, we don’t do under-populated. The main courts are close to sold out, and the outside courts are always a cheerful, enthusiastic jostle of spectators. Is there any other major sporting event that gets you so close to the action?
Ahead of last year’s final, I remember asking Caroline Wozniacki whether, with the two Brits Konta and Watson bowing out in the semis, she thought the Eastbourne crowd might adopt her. “Oh, I think they already did that some years ago!” was the response.
Not that the quality of play or entrants is the least bit parochial. Kyle Edmund leads the Men’s draw, with some excellent support. And 16 of the 25 world’s top-ranked women players make up the Eastbourne seeds. The game at the moment is just teeming with gifted young players, as the qualifiers of the first weekend will display.
Office sweepstake? Draw Konta or Wozniacki and you’ll be feeling smug, but keep an eye out for the absurdly talented trio of Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka – all of them seeded and none of them older than 21.
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.
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. I chatted to her this time last year. “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 normal 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 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 except the pleasure of it all.”
Thank you, Alison. You are Eastbourne with a human face – and tennis with a smile on its face.
Tennis at the Devonshire Park is distinctively different.