Tennis: Wilkinson so willing to serve kin and county

Andrew Baker samples the unique atmosphere of tennis Eastbourne style
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There is a yawning gulf between tennis as it is played by most and tennis as it is played by the few at the top of the sport. Most tennis fans pick up a racket every now and then, if only to pat a ball about on the scarred asphalt of a park court on a Sunday afternoon. But the stars only ever hit a ball in anger in spotless stadia bedecked with sponsors' billboards, their every twitch relayed to the watching millions by the relentless eyes of the television cameras. There is an exception, however, a unique British event that bridges the gap between show-court and municipal muck-heap: County Week.

Devonshire Park in Eastbourne was the venue for Group One of the National Doubles' competition, and if that arena, with its overtones of gentility and record of hosting a top- quality women's tournament, seems elitist, it is worth remembering that other group contests took place simultaneously at less exalted locations, such as Bude and Hunstanton, Felixstowe and Cromer.

Nor were the stars confined to Eastbourne, where the national women's No 1, Sam Smith, turned out for Essex, and the Wimbledon stalwart Chris Wilkinson played for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight squad. Karen Cross played for Devon at Worthing, and Davis Cup hero Andrew Richardson did his stuff for Lincolnshire at Southsea.

Such luminaries were far outnumbered by a supporting cast of semi-pros, ex-pros, never-quite pros, veterans and juniors, all motivated not by money or the quest for fame but by the desire to win for their county, impress their friends, get together for a good gossip and, above all, to enjoy their tennis.

For most, it was a cherished chance to swap volleys and banter with international stars; for the stars, an equally precious opportunity to keep in touch with the realities of the sport that has changed and dominated their lives.

"I've played at County Week for the last five or six years, and I wouldn't want to miss it," Chris Wilkinson said between matches. "I might have been at the Challenger tournament in Newcastle this week instead, but that's not an issue. I really enjoy it here, it's great to catch up with friends and do some relaxing."

It may have been a come-down after the glory of Wimbledon and the Davis Cup tie in the Ukraine, but Wilkinson was hardly dossing. During County Week, which consists entirely of doubles, pairs play three three-set matches a day and if the contests are invariably good-humoured that does not mean that they are uncompetitive: the scoring system means that not just every set but every game counts, so that the most hopeless of lost causes and the most elusive of lobs must be chased down and nailed.

Life off the court can be exhausting as well: the players all stay at the Grand Hotel close to Devonshire Park and in the evenings their diet is not restricted to pasta and fruit juice. The Devon squad, Wilkinson & Co's opponents on Wednesday, have a powerful reputation as party animals, justified by their arrival on court before the start of play. Dressed in Father Christmas outfits, they sang: "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way/ Oh what fun it is to see Hampshire lose today."

Wilkinson, however, had other ideas, and despite having had one or two beers themselves the night before, he and his partner Laurence Matthews registered their seventh, eighth and ninth victories of the week over Santa and his helpers to keep Hampshire and the Isle of Wight on the way to the title, which they eventually secured.

"It's diffcult to compare with doing well at Wimbledon," Wilkinson said. "The weather is better here, that's for sure. Wimbledon is the ultimate event for me, I enjoy it and luckily I seem to do well there. But let's face it, this is a lot more relaxing..." He wandered off to check out the progress of another Hampshire pair on an adjacent court.

One of the first to congratulate Wilkinson, not only on his day's play but also on his recent recall to the Davis Cup squad, was Sir Geoffrey Cass, the president of the Lawn Tennis Association, who played in the County Cup for 31 years. "What I like about this tournament is that it is all about a complete team effort," Sir Geoffrey said, casting contented eyes over the pairs scrapping in the evening sun. "Every single match counts and you can't let up."

Sir Geoffrey is miffed that County Week does not have a sponsor, reckoning that the combination of clean-cut image, wide age-range appeal and geographical spread should be irresistible. He may be right, but it would be a shame to tarnish such an appealing ritual.

Part of the appeal, in any case, is that County Week is not all clean- cut. As Wilkinson celebrated, a player from another county reclined on a park bench, Jeffrey Archer novel in one hand, pint of lager in the other. His T-shirt read "Far From Sober": not the kind of logo they encourage at Wimbledon.