I’m not sure there’s a sport as quintessentially ‘English’ in the minds of certain people as tennis. Of course, by ‘tennis’, they really only mean that thing played at the All-England Club: on grass, in white, with polite applause. Cliff Richard in attendance, Sue Barker simpering, John Inverdale being inappropriate and someone charging a week’s wages in return for a strawberry and dollop of cream.
Eastbourne, now in its fortieth year as a pre-Wimbledon tournament, is some of those things. It is polite. Everyone from marshalls to people selling sunhats to the person sitting in the wrong seat was unfailingly polite. It is on grass. Cut ‘cricket pitch’ short, the ball fizzes off it – it’s not like the length you’ll see on the very few grass courts remaining elsewhere. And in white? No, not really. But at least the colours help you differentiate between the tall guy in the beard at one end and the tall guy with the beard at the other end.
We had tickets for Court 1. Eastbourne has two proper courts – the largest is Centre, which rises over Devonshire Park like a well-mannered giant. It has music and a permanent mic-guy rousing the crowd. Court 1 sits demurely in its shadow. Occasionally we have a man to tell us what’s going on but, in general, we’re left to our own devices. It’s a very pleasant way to spend time and the quality of the tennis we see is high.
Going on the Friday meant we had four matches to watch. First up, Feliciano Lopez disposed of Jeremy Chardy in two sets – although it was a remarkably close for that. Lopez thus advanced to the semi final and would actually go on to win the title. We then missed most of the women’s doubles match because we had an important pork pie to eat. It was much less close so we chose the right time to eat.
Back in time though for the rather wonderful experience of seeing Martina Hingis clearly having a magnificent time playing doubles (this time with Flavia Pennetta) against the current champions (I believe) Peschke and Srebotnik. The women in front wondered, “Is that the Martina Hingis?” whilst the chaps behind used google to find out the player’s age. It was, and she’s 34. Her team also won via a Match Tie-break deciding set. We applauded politely for the losers, a little louder for the winners. Hingis smiled throughout.
And, last up, we had a final. A men’s doubles final, no less. With a Brit. Dominic Inglot was the Brit, and Treat Huey his non-British partner. They also won via a Match Tie-break. Inglot reacted as if he’d scored the winner at a World Cup final. There will be victories at Wimbledon that bring more money but less joy. He did a lap of honour, high-fiving everyone as he went by.
And, with that, we were done. Six hours in the sunshine watching the tennis. Some great sport played in gorgeous surroundings. A reminder that not everything needs to be ‘Stoke City on a December Wednesday’. And, thankfully, Cliff Richard was nowhere to be seen.