Britain starts building on clay

The LTA is spending pounds 100m on tennis courts. Simon Jones reports from an event that has resurfaced in style at Bournemouth
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The Independent Online
In 1968 Bournemouth was the focus of world tennis. In April of that year the British Hard Court Championships ushered in the open era and Mark Cox caught the imagination of the nation as the first amateur to beat a professional when he overwhelmed the legendary Pancho Gonzales in four sets.

This week international competition has returned to Bournemouth at the same venue, the West Hants Lawn Tennis Club, for the first time since 1983 with the Rover British Clay Court Championships, which combines the men's LTA Spring Satellite Masters with a women's WTA Tour event. Reviving the tournament has cost the Lawn Tennis Association pounds 500,000, which has been spent resurfacing eight shale courts with clay and providing 1,200 seats on the show court.

Bournemouth was once one of the world's major tournaments, second only to Wimbledon in England and on a par with Monte Carlo, Rome and Hamburg. The British Hard Court Championships started at Torquay in 1924 and moved to Bournemouth in 1927. In the pre-war era, it was regarded as the most important event outside the four Grand Slams and the roll-call of champions provides a snapshot of the game's history. Rene Lacoste won it twice in the Twenties, Fred Perry took five consecutive titles in the Thirties and Jaroslav Drobny, the man with "the deadliest drop shot of them all", managed three in a row in the Fifties.

When the 23-year-old Cox came up against Gonzales he was facing not just one of the game's greatest players but also one of its most intimidating personalities. Cox said: "He was an incredibly charismatic, powerful individual. He was fearsome and his slightest utterance made everyone sit up and take notice."

Cox's victory, after losing the first set 6-0, was invaluable for him not just for the publicity but for the boost it gave to his self-belief. Cox's wife, Alison, was a leading British junior who competed at Bournemouth in the early 1960s as Alison Stroud. She remembers a friendly tournament which was a ritual for retired people. "The first two rows were full of old ladies with Thermoses and rugs and they never moved,'' she recalls. "They just put their rugs on and took their rugs off according to the weather. It was always the same old ladies every year."

As Cox seized the moment against Gonzales, the chance is now there for young British players to gain tournament experience in their own country on a surface in which the LTA is investing heavily.The money put up for Bournemouth is part of a five-year plan which will see the LTA spend pounds 100m on improving old courts and building new ones, with the preferred surface being clay.

Bill Knight, the LTA's manager of men's national training, is pleased with progress at Bournemouth this week with Miles Maclagan leading the British challenge. Knight, who himself won the British Hard Courts three times, is an enthusiastic supporter of the new emphasis on clay-court tennis.

"I feel this is a big step forward," he said. "It will make a huge difference to our players eventually. On clay courts you can't hide weaknesses. You develop good legs, a sound understanding of the game and the angles of the court. And you can't just push the ball either. If you can't hit the ball hard and hit winners, you won't succeed."

The opportunity the new Bournemouth event represents was encapsulated in the performance of Karen Cross, a 21-year-old ranked 11 in Britain, who went into the main draw as a lucky loser from the qualifying. In the first round she beat the Argentinian Maria-Jose Gaidano, ranked 134 in the world, and as a result should improve her ranking by 100 places, moving up to No 350. Cross was bullish about the WTA Tour event. "It's great. Really useful. It's the chance for us to do something."

There are not many places, apart from the Grand Slams, where it is still possible to watch men's and women's tennis at the same time. These days, Bournemouth is no longer a refuge for the Thermos and rug brigade. The crowds are younger and knowledgeable, with esoteric chatter about String Savers and inside-out forehands sprink-ling the court-side conversation.

By positioning yourself carefully it is also possible to watch a number of matches simultaneously. Earlier this week, I could see the exotically named Patricia Hy-Boulais, a Canadian with a Cambodian father and Chinese mother, play the American Debbie Graham on one court while having just as good a view of Britain's Clare Wood fighting out a tense third set with Alexandra Fusai of France. On an adjacent court an all-Australian battle was at its peak between Todd Larkham and Allen Belobrajdic, whose game looked as difficult as his name.

"That's top-spin," a little girl in school uniform said matter of factly as she watched the balls' heavy arc from baseline to baseline. "That's bollocks," said Wood as she netted an easy backhand. The girl's mother smiled. Then Hy-Boulais, resplendent in a purple Diadora tracksuit, broke serve with a wicked net-cord and Graham, conqueror of the top seed, Mana Endo of Japan, in the first round, gave her a look that even Gonzales would have admired. Bournemouth may have changed, but it has retained much of its old charm.

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