How has Eastbourne become a major part of the tennis calendar?

Caroline Wozniacki with the winners's trophy in 2009 and two people in deckchairs on the beach at Eastbourne One week a year Eastbourne's usual fare of deckchairs on the beach is supplemented by top sports stars

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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.

Ana Ivanovic signing an autograph for a boy in 2012 The venue's intimate nature has always given fans the chance to be close to stars such as Ana Ivanovic, who says it is one of the players' favourite tournaments because of the "impeccable grass courts"
General view of Devonshire Park during the Eastbourne tournament in 2013 Devonshire Park club chairman Ken Pollock says he calls Eastbourne "Tennis Town"

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.

Small town, big sporting event

  • Eastbourne - population 99,412, hosts a major pre-Wimbledon tennis tournament
  • Epsom - population 75,102, hosts The Derby
  • Hoylake - population 13,348, hosting the 2014 Open golf
  • Shepton Mallet - population 10,369, hosted boxing matches featuring Frank Bruno and Naseem Hamed in 1995
  • Silverstone - population 2,176, hosts Formula 1 British Grand Prix

Population statistics from 2011 census.

Source: Office of National Statistics

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."

Johanna Konta on Eastbourne beach British number three Johanna Konta lives in Eastbourne but says players from further afield love coming to her home town too - partly because it is a good tournament for fans to get close to the action

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.

'I was an Eastbourne ball girl'

BBC reporter Libby Sutcliffe (centre) and other ball girls at Eastbourne in the late 1980s

I was just a teenage schoolgirl (above, centre) in the late 1980s when I was given the chance to stand opposite some of the world's top female tennis players.

Dozens of girls at The Cavendish School in Eastbourne were picked to be ball girls at the tennis tournament that comes to the town every year.

Among the stars I threw tennis balls to were Martina Navratilova and Jennifer Capriati and I also ball girled one of the last professional games Chris Evert played in.

It was a huge honour to share the centre court with some of the biggest names in the sport and we had to complete months of training to make sure we threw and rolled the balls effortlessly. We were called the unsung heroes of the event and we knew we were doing a good job if no-one noticed us.

There were occasional slip ups - score boards falling over, sunburn and seagull poo splattered on a bright white skirt. Once I was stuck crouching at the net for 14 games when the umpire forgot to shout "new balls please" when it got to seven. My legs did ache.

It was truly an amazing experience and I developed a knowledge and love of tennis that has stayed with me ever since. It meant for one week a year we could escape the classroom, forgot we were just teenagers, mix with the talented and famous and even appear on the TV.

"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."

Martina Navratilova and Tracey Austin at Eastbourne in the late 1970s/early 1980s The tournament had high-profile winners from the start, including Martina Navratilova and Tracey Austin

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.

Anna Kournikova launches a bra advertising campaign at Eastbourne in 2000 The tournament's prestige made Eastbourne the unlikely venue for the launch of a bra advertising campaign with Russian star Anna Kournikova in 2000, when she was at the height of her worldwide fame

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

Martina Navratilova, the most successful female player of all time, lifted the trophy in Eastbourne 11 times.

Navratilova became so closely associated with the town she was awarded the freedom of Eastbourne in 2005, when she said: "I am deeply moved by such genuine kindness... and now I truly feel I am a part of such a noble community.

"The appreciation is mutual. I appreciate Eastbourne, Eastbourne appreciates me and it's nice when it's symbiotic like that, it kind of makes you feel good."

She said the players walked around among the fans, who could also watch the top stars practise.

"It's all right there, it's not so spread out. The players can interact with the fans and the kids and that's what it should be."

Children watching Agnieszka Radwanska practice in 2013 Local children make the most of the only annual chance to see top sportspeople in Eastbourne - such as world number four Agnieszka Radwanska, top seed at this year's tournament
Serena Williams media conference in Eastbourne in 2011 The arrival of Serena Williams in 2011 saw more reporters in Eastbourne than on most days of the year

Darren Weir, chairman of the Eastbourne Hospitality Association, said the tournament was a crucial event in the town's calendar.

"We all have guests that specifically stay for the tournament - my guest house is always full with spectators, and some of them have been coming for 20 years and book a year in advance.

"We also have to accommodate all the support staff, the catering workers, and the bigger hotels - the four and five star hotels - host the players and their entourages, if they have any. The LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) tends to pick a hotel for the players.

"If you look around all the restaurants and bars benefit from it and shops fill their window display with tennis things - the town gets a tennis buzz."

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario jogging past people in deckchairs on Eastbourne seafront in 2001 People relaxing on the seafront can find Grand Slam winners such as Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, pictured in 2001, jogging past them as part of their training regime

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