( /BBCNews) In the week before Wimbledon, many of the world’s best tennis players are eager to get some last minute competitive practice. But how has the quiet Sussex coastal town of Eastbourne become the place so many of them go to get it?
Eastbourne has a population of about 100,000 people and is famous for the cliffs of Beachy Head, its sunny weather and high levels of retired people.
But for the past four decades it has hosted one of the world’s most important grass court tennis tournaments.
The women’s championship, first held in 1974, is rated as a “premier” tournament. Other WTA competitions with the same status are held in Sydney, Paris, Dubai, Tokyo and Moscow – all places with a slightly higher world profile than Eastbourne, however attractive the floral arrangements on its seafront may be.
Among the famous names who have held trophies aloft by the seaside are Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Virginia Wade, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Andy Roddick, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Caroline Wozniacki and current Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli.
So how has the relatively little town carved itself such an important role in the sporting calendar?
Ken Pollock, chairman of the Devonshire Park Lawn Tennis Club, where the tournament is played, said: “It’s an important venue because of the quality of the grass courts, the weather – it’s known as the sunshine coast – and there’s ample hotel accommodation.
“I go out to schools to talk about the tournament and I bill it as the “tennis town”. There’s nothing else like it in the country.
“Eastbourne stands alone – there isn’t another town which is just famous for its tennis. It marks it out as quite a remarkable place.”
British number three Johanna Konta, who lives in Eastbourne and is ranked 110th in the world, said “Obviously for me it’s more special than for most of the players – it’s one of the few chances I get to sleep in my own bed and eat my mum’s cooking.
“But other players find it a very nice tournament and that’s why there are always some of the world’s top players taking part, and why they keep coming back.”
Of course, Eastbourne is not the only small English town to host a major sporting event. The Derby is held in Epsom, the Open golf visits locations as obscure as Hoylake and Sandwich and Formula 1’s British Grand Prix is held in Silverstone – population 2,176.
But horse racing, golf and motor racing each have to be played in huge areas, meaning they are by nature more likely to be away from urban sprawl, unlike tennis – whose most famous homes are the grand slam venues of London, Paris, New York and Melbourne.
“There are more glamorous locations on tour, but everyone seems to love a seaside resort and Eastbourne remains popular – despite the chilly wind that can blow through Devonshire Park on occasions,” says Russell Fuller, the BBC’s tennis correspondent.
“After up to a fortnight in Paris, and ahead of two weeks at Wimbledon, Eastbourne provides a pleasant respite to city life.
“Fewer of the very top seeds opt to play a grass court warm up event these days, but it looks as if a healthy number of top 10 players will be in attendance once again.”
Although the tournament in its current format dates back 40 years, tennis has been played at the venue for far longer.
Mr Pollock said the park opened on 1 July 1874 and he thinks the first championships was held there in 1881, with the tennis club starting about the same sort of time.
“The current tournament came out of the South of England Lawn Tennis Championship, which was held down here in Eastbourne,” he said. “The likes of Fred Perry and Rene Lacoste and co would have taken part – it was quite a prestigious tournament.”
The tournament has always attracted many of the world’s top players. This year’s event will see five of the women’s top 10 players in action – previous winner, world number four and former Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska is top seed.
Victoria Azarenka, twice Australian Open winner, is making her comeback from injury at Eastbourne and 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, ranked sixth in the world, is also playing, along with seventh and ninth-ranked Jelena Jankovic and Angelique Kerber.
Top seed in the men’s tournament is world number 14 Richard Gasquet, a former semi-finalist at Wimbledon and the US Open.
A brief history of Eastbourne tennis
- 1881 – First championships held at Devonshire Park
- South of England Lawn Tennis Championships and many Davis Cup matches held there
- 1974 – Annual pre-Wimbledon tournament for women launched
- 2009 – Tournament becomes an event for men and women