Genteel, bedraggled, endearing. British tennis returns to its roots

Click to follow
The Independent Online

On the day Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon, tennis in Britain was returning to normality at the East of England Championships in Felixstowe. By last Monday evening the tournament referee, Carl Baldwin, had worked out that the event had managed to complete 83 more matches than at the same stage a year ago. Last year, clearly, it rained. This year they have also had to cope with rain, unseasonal gales and a spot of global- warming fireworks on Thursday, when a 500ft waterspout formed half a mile out to sea. Had the twister moved inland, the tournament, and possibly much of Felixstowe, could have been flattened.

All part of a day's job, this, for Jeremy Shales, in charge of the LTA $25,000 women's Challenger event, the main part of the week's tennis. "The tornado was the most phenomenal sight," he said. "And it was followed by a double rainbow." The bedraggled state of the logos and banners bore testimony to the British climate's caprices, but the show, of course, had gone on. "One has to try to play matches," said Shales, "though the conditions have not been absolutely ideal. I have had to get them back on marginally slippery courts sometimes."

At the Felixstowe Lawn Tennis Club's six-acre site in Bath Road we are as far removed from the glitz of Wimbledon as it is possible to get. Shabby it may be, but it is quality shabby, genteel and endearing. And better days are at hand, with a £420,000 improvement scheme for courts and premises already under way, funded by members and the sale of some land. The club president is Christine Janes (née Truman), also forever endearing as the gallant, limping lass who lost the all-British Wimbledon women's final of 1961 to Angela Mortimer.

On site to watch her daughter Amanda competing in the Girobank event, being staged alongside the Challenger, Christine recalled she had played here as a 12-year-old. "It has been updated and moved upmarket since then," she said, standing alongside a large, corrugated-iron structure with peeling green paint which was doing service as the racket-stringing centre. "But you can see there is still quite a large scope for improvement. It brings you down to earth here." The first of Friday's women's semi-finals started in front of 32 people seated on green folding chairs on a knoll along one side of the main court. There is an admission charge of £1 to £4, depending on the day, but only, Christine observed, "if they are awake on the gate".

Among the small gathering of spectators was, astonishingly, Roscoe Tanner, Wimbledon runner-up to Bjorn Borg in 1979 and Australian Open champion of 1977. Tanner, 49, is competing in the men's doubles with Simon Dawson, a 20-year-old from Norfolk he is coaching. They met when Dawson was at the University of North Carolina. "Simon has the potential for a tremendous future," said Tanner. "He is very fast, very strong and a good guy to coach." Tanner confirmed that his famous serve continues to function well. "I can still send 'em down at 115-120 miles an hour. My serve never broke down. The hardest thing is that they make the balls heavier now."

He was full of admiration for the Felixstowe competitors. "The stuff you have to go through to get into a tournament is a lot tougher than in my day. There are players in this draw who, with a little luck, could be on the regular tour. It is just a question of who can do it when the flag is up."

All, naturally, are hoping the flag will go up for them. Yesterday was good news for Italy's Roberta Vinci. She collected the Challenger first prize of £2,012 by defeating Lucie Ahl 7-5 7-5 (Ahl had collected £6,000 for a first-round loss at Wimbledon). The other seven Felixstowe events pay a total of £7,000. Competitors exist, for the most part, in bed-and-breakfast accommodation provided by club members. They are also required to clean up after themselves. This notice was taped to the verandah wall: "Will all competitors please remove their rubbish from court after the match."

Celebrating their 100th anniversary, the East of England Championships once attracted Wimbledon winners like Dorothea Lambert Chambers. Mark Cox has won here four times. The most recent big name was Amélie Mauresmo, who lost in the first round of qualifying seven years ago. In many ways, though, it resembles life on the main tour, with rackets hurled and low fives exchanged between doubles partners. There were even two fines last week of $25 for what Shales called "a little bit of language".

A Wimbledon umpire for the past 41 years, Shales has taken charge of 10 finals there, including Becker-Edberg in 1990. "At Wimbledon the eyes of the world are on you, every line covered by an official and TV watching," he said. "Here, you get hardly any spectators and have to call some of the lines yourself. So which are the pressure matches? It doesn't matter what level you're talking about, they expect the same level of officiating.

"But Felixstowe is fun. I am in shorts for the week, come hell or high water. And on Thursday it nearly was."