United Nations of tennis adds to atmosphere

Nature Valley International Tennis Tournament at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne (Photo by Jon Rigby) SUS-190627-110458002
Nature Valley International Tennis Tournament at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne (Photo by Jon Rigby) SUS-190627-110458002

Tennis at Eastbourne? Breathe it in! Like nothing else in the calendar year, the Nature Valley tournament puts our town on the national and international stage, and Eastbourne this week has been offering tennis by the lungful.

On the entire WTA/LTA tours, there is no venue exactly like ours. A relatively small town with a tournament ranked only a notch or so below the four Grand Slam events.

Tennis played not in a vast or anonymous out-of-town stadium, but under the green trees of the Devonshire, on Danny Negus’s lovingly prepared, shimmering green courts – did you notice his new diamond cut this year, by the way?

And tennis staged not simply in the heart of town, but in the heart of a community which completely embraces the event. Has anything else happened in town this week. You’d never have noticed, for all roads – literally – have led to the Park.

Some things never seem to change: British successes on court were fairly few this year. Jo Konta fell maddeningly short of her own high standards and bowed out in the last 16, while the younger clutch of promising female players – who all seem to be called Katie or Harriet – suffered early exits. Those girls do have ability but they face daunting competition from a global surge of tennis excellence in the 18-22 generation.

The men have actually done quite well this week. Kyle Edmund, Dan Evans, Cam Norrie, Jamie Ward all progressed – some of them knocking each other out! Andy Murray possibly made more impact off the court than on it, where he and new partner Marcelo Melo lasted only two sets. “We’ve had only one quite short practice session,” rued Sir Andy, “and we spent most of the time trying to learn each other’s signals!”

But it doesn’t matter, for the Eastbourne crowds are patriotic only in the the nicest, most civilised sense, and they are well used to adopting their favourite players from across the globe.

This wonderful week of tennis is as cosmopolitan as our town could possibly get. I have obliged visitors by recommending Greek, Italian, Thai and Spanish restaurants, as well as the finest fish and chips in town. I have sat next to – and chatted with – spectators from Germany, Australia, Sweden, and Littlehampton. I have been joyously embraced by a beaming Romanian lady when Simona Halep clinched a match point (she might actually have been Simona’s Mum). I have shared memories of Navratilova and Virginia Wade. It’s a United Nations of Tennis.

The players absolutely love us. Listen to Angie Kerber, now virtually an adopted daughter of the town: “I just love it here. I have nothing but good memories over all the years and I love the courts, the atmosphere, the people. It’s the best possible preparation for Wimbledon.

“It is nothing like any other tournaments. Everyone is up close and the players really feel a part of the surroundings. The spectators are knowledgeable and the people of Eastbourne are so friendly towards us players.”

Good-natured geniality is infectious. Think back to your last airport security check: it was somewhere on a scale between confusion and panic as you jostled through with that tray of belongings, and then groaned as your metal belt clasp set the arch beeping.

At the tennis entry gates here, the worst you will have faced is a brief shuffle in the sunshine and a smiling steward waving you through. We should bottle this and market it.

Everywhere you look, there are unsung heroes. Take St John’s Ambulance co-ordinator Saricka March: “Across the nine days we have at any time, at least eight qualified attenders, as well as links to local GPs and about a dozen of our young cadets. None of us are paid – in fact a lot of us take annual leave in order to be here this week! It’s such a prestigious event and we want people to be safe and well looked-after.”

Or take senior marshall Jane White: “I think this is my twentieth year! By the end of the week I will have been on site for more than 100 hours – I might as well bring a sleeping bag. We don’t do crises, we just handle all the issues and questions as calmly and cheerfully as we can.

It rarely gets tricky, although we do get the occasional absurd question such as – who will be playing in the final, then? Or what time will the match on Centre Court finish?”

And if any grumps of my elderly generation are ever again tempted to moan about the youth of today, they should take a few minutes to observe the phenomenal teamwork and discipline of the ball crews from Cavendish, Eastbourne College and Roedean Moira House. Speedy, skilled, finely tuned - absolutely flawless. Take a bow, guys.

For our local officers of the law, this one is not quite their toughest gig of the year – I’ve noticed nothing much more serious than one of those massive pile-on-pile-ups on the lawns, by a bunch of exuberant seven-year-olds.

Not that we begrudge them a day in the sun, to counter-balance all the traffic tragedies or the grim shifts in the early hours. Apparently they are not permitted an ice-cream on duty, but maybe next year the Superintendent could review that rule...?

Did I say sunshine just now? Well, ok, it has not exactly been wall-to-wall. Ironically, the WTA tour had been dogged by damp and dismal weather for much of 2019, with a couple of tournaments only just evading wash-outs, and Eastbourne has actually been an improvement. In best British coastal tradition, each day has brought some meteorological quirk, from mizzly drizzle to brisk breeze to blazing sun. Saturday’s forecast, as I write, looks absolutely perfect.

In fact, we’ve only one problem now. How do we fill the next 51 weeks until next year….