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Aegon International tennis tournament in Eastbourne

PUBLISHED: 11:18 15 June 2015

Archant

All eyes will be on Wimbledon at the end of June – but Eastbourne has its own spot at the top table, says John Thynne

Devonshire Park. Photo: Mark JarvisDevonshire Park. Photo: Mark Jarvis

“It’s the calm before the storm,” says Gavin Fletcher, tournament director of the Aegon International tennis tournament, which comes to Eastbourne in June. Famously, this star-studded women’s event is held the week before Wimbledon, giving the players the perfect opportunity to hone their grass-court skills.

The tournament has been played at Devonshire Park since 1974, when a 19-year-old Chris Evert defeated Britain’s Virginia Wade 7-5, 6-4 in the final (Wade would go on to triumph over Billie Jean King the following year).

In fact, the list of past winners reads like a roll call of sporting greats – Martina Navratilova, who won the tournament 11 times, is joined by the likes of Tracy Austin, Helena Sukova, Monica Seles, Jana Novotna, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. More recently, former world number one Caroline Wozniacki lifted the trophy, and last year, up-and-coming American youngster Madison Keys claimed her maiden WTA Tour title, defeating British hope Heather Watson in the semi-final.

So who can we expect to see serving at the seaside in 2015? Players qualify for the tournament based on their world ranking and the top 48 players are automatically eligible. It’s highly unlikely that they will all play at Eastbourne, but visitors will certainly see some big names as well as emerging British players who may have been granted wildcards.

Eastbourne, which has a prize pool of about £500,000, certainly seems to be popular with the players. “Their hotels are 400 yards from the venue, their favourite restaurants are just down the road, they go running along the seafront and up on Beachy Head. It’s relaxed,” says Fletcher. “And when they come into Devonshire Park, it’s a beautiful place and the courts are fantastic – mind-blowingly good.”

The quality of the courts is beyond dispute. Eastbourne Borough Council’s Events Development Manager Mike Marchant explains that meticulous care is needed to create a surface worthy of an international event. “We have a specialist team of four groundstaff who are employed all year round to maintain the grass. The tournament season goes on until the middle of September, and from October to March the grass will be mown, aerated, fertilised and seeded,” he says.

It’s not just the courts that have to be prepared. For the past few months, dozens of children from local schools Moira House and Cavendish have been training as ball girls and boys. Add hundreds of casual stewards and catering staff, as well as umpires and line judges from the LTA, and you have quite a cast. “We reckon there are probably about 600 staff on site during the event,” says Marchant.

As in recent years, members of the public will be able to watch qualifying round matches free of charge on the opening Saturday (20 June). “I think it’s great,” says Fletcher. “First we’re giving something back to the people of Eastbourne. Secondly, we can promote it as a family day. Hopefully the kids will be inspired by the tennis. And, for people who have never been to an international tennis event before – I’ll make no bones about it, I hope they enjoy their free day out on the Saturday and I hope they buy a ticket for the rest of the week.”

Reserved Centre and Court 1 seating prices range between £22 and £50 at other times, and there is still terrific value to be had from a ground pass which gives visitors access to a day of top-class tennis for as little as £10.

Madison Keys takes the trophy at Eastbourne. Getty ImagesMadison Keys takes the trophy at Eastbourne. Getty Images

Eastbourne resident Mark Fryer has been taking his family to the tennis for years. “For us, the tennis marks the start of summer,” he says. “There’s real excitement around town – there are adverts everywhere and you even see some of the players using the restaurants and so on. You can have a good day out with the family and the ticket pricing makes it quite accessible. The other nice thing about it is that you can watch the top players practising outside the main courts and there’s some great doubles action as well!”

And if the smaller members of your party start to tire of the tennis, there’s plenty going on within easy reach of the Park. The beach is just a five-minute walk away, while another five-minute stroll takes you to the famous pier. Built in 1870, it boasts an assortment of cafes, amusements and rides – as well as an ice cream emporium.

As well as providing great entertainment for the locals, the event puts Eastbourne in the spotlight and brings much-needed cash into the economy – council figures suggest as much as £5.9m each year. “It raises the profile of Eastbourne on an international scale because the event is sold globally,” says Marchant. “We do a lot of branding in the town so people know tennis week is on, the hotels are full, the restaurants are buzzing every night – it’s great. We probably have six or seven hundred people buying weekly tickets and a lot of those are staying in local accommodation. 
You get quite a few who will buy for two or three days and you have people who travel down for the day.”

Once the dust has settled on the 2015 championships the groundsmen have just a month to prepare the courts for the Aegon Summer County Cup (20-24 July), when men’s and women’s teams from across the UK compete for supremacy. Once again, you’re guaranteed top-quality tennis (the likes of Andy and Jamie Murray have competed in the past) – and this time it’s free all week.

So while the action at SW19 will no doubt grab the majority of the headlines this summer, why not consider a tennis trip to Eastbourne? You’ll have a smashing time.

To buy tickets for the Aegon International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park from 20-27 June, see lta.org.uk/major-events

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