Tennis: Historic contest with a bright future

County Week means intense competition in a family atmosphere. By John Roberts in Eastbourne
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GHOSTLY IMAGES and echoes mark the 125th anniversary of Eastbourne's Devonshire Park. It was here, during a family holiday in 1924, that the 15-year-old Fred Perry became smitten with tennis, savouring the scene of "people running around in smart white togs".

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were later to command attention on the Centre Court, and the imported turf on Court One formerly graced its Wimbledon counterpart (now demolished), on which Suzanne Lenglen performed her customary pas de deux in the opening match at Church Road in 1922, and where John McEnroe informed us about the pits of the world in 1981.

Yesterday's external sounds, which were not intrusive enough to interrupt the determined thwack of racket on ball, involved preparations for the Eastbourne summer festival - vintage cars, street musicians, firework displays - which happens to coincide with the latter stages of the Lawn Tennis Association's Inter-County Cup, affectionately known as County Week.

Those who imagine that rackets are sheathed and stashed in broom cupboards a couple of weeks after general interest reaches a peak during the annual Wimbledon pageant would be astonished at the volume of activity on the 18 outside courts here at Devonshire, in the premier division of the competition, and also on the lawns of 12 other County Week centres, from Ilkley to Southsea.

Some 800 players are competing, male and female, ranging from promising young county prospects (Tim Henman was in that category eight years ago, when he represented Oxfordshire) to the likes of Chris Wilkinson, a regular on the ATP Tour and a County Week stalwart for Hampshire and Isle of Wight, the defending men's champions.

Compete is the word: every point is a point of honour, fiercely fought over by doubles teams as they contest three best-of-three-sets rubbers each day, from Monday to Friday. There are no umpires or line judges, no ball-boys or ball-girls, no prize-money.

"This week's been like Carnoustie with tennis rackets," mused the referee, Keith Dewick, during a comparatively gale-free session yesterday. The odd racket and ball has been abused without any interference from the wind, prompting Dewick to admonish the culprits "firmly, but with a sense of proportion and a touch of diplomacy".

As Dewick pointed out, refereeing a team event such as this is not the same as officiating at an individual tournament. Many of the players have taken holidays from their jobs. A number have taken a break from coaching duties. "All of them are here because they love the game," Dewick said. "For the majority, County Week is the pinnacle of their career. And all the spectators are tennis people, who know the rules."

Paul Hand, 34, of Berkshire, is among those taking a break from coaching (he supervises a squad of 30 at Basingstoke) and also from competing for prize-money on the Girobank Tour, which provides an opportunity for players to earn between other engagements. Hand, a Wimbledon doubles quarter-finalist with Wilkinson in 1993, currently leads the Girobank Tour bonus pool.

"I was the last British player to beat Tim Henman on the Girobank Tour," Hand recalled. "It was about four years ago. He was very moderate then. I played on his concentration. I slowed him down and tried to make him bored."

Hand is fascinated by what it takes to get the best out of British players. "It's a numbers game," he said, underlining the point that, at the top level, the British game numbers two, Henman and Greg Rusedski. "I've been in the top 20 in Britain for about 13 or 14 years, scratching a living," Hand said. "The LTA are going in the right direction, producing a development programme, but the top 50 British players need to be seen to be making a living if we are to attract athletes who are going into other sports."

It is not the purpose of County Week to produce players for the international stage; that would be a welcome by-product of a competition originated in the last century to enable club players to make the most of their talent in a highly competitive but social environment (the very introduction of lawn tennis was, to quote Wallis Myers, one of the sport's distinguished chroniclers, "an accident in the social life of placid Victorianism").

Some observers may be inclined to dismiss the event as an anachronism. What Henman, and others, have found, is that County Week, even in the lower divisions, provides a particular challenge for the newest recruits to prove worthy of battling alongside the seasoned campaigners. "It's not just about a couple of old boys running around like me," Hand said. "We've got two 18-year-olds in our team. At the start of the week, they were too shy to talk to me. Now we have a good rapport."

The majority of County Week spectators are family, friends, or fellow club members. The LTA, in its quest for talent, ought not to underestimate the power of the family in tennis. Attracting players from the park courts, from other athletic pursuits, and from a variety of social backgrounds, is paramount. But the natural course to the local club has always been through a family involvement.

Ivan Lendl's mother tethered him to a net post while she played; Martina Navratilova's grandparents had a court in their garden; Boris Becker's architect father designed the local club pavilion. Britain has known a few dynasties, notably the Paishs and the Mottrams. And Henman, it should be remembered, is the product of generations of players, one of whom served underarm.