EASTBOURNE, England—It takes me about ten minutes after getting off the train and arriving at Devonshire Park, where the AEGON International is played, before I’m rejoicing in being back, in the unique freedom and intimacy of Eastbourne. Loitering for a minute outside the press centre, a group of officials walk past, animatedly—and a bit worryingly—discussing how to identify one’s ‘bad eye’; Marion Bartoli, following them alone, glances over to the practice courts where Milos Raonic is throwing up lobs for Gilles Simon to smash, and smiles a small, inscrutable smile at some private joke of her own.
As the early drizzle gives way to sunshine, the courts flood with the final rounds of qualifying and the first rounds of the main draw. With both men and women playing here and a Saturday final, the event should feel frenetic, but one of my favorite things about Eastbourne is that it never does. The openness of the grounds and the casual ambience lends itself to a sort of tennis flâneur approach, wandering from court to court and seeing what you can see. It suddenly feels not just possible, but eminently sensible to sit on a shady wall and contemplate the mysteries of the universe as revealed to you by Yuliya Beygelzimer struggling to hold serve in a final-round qualifying match. I’ll be curious to find out how this tournament, which is much more representative of the Britain I live in than the more well-heeled Queen’s Club, looks to American eyes when Steve Tignor arrives to check it out.
Uniformed schoolkids cradling their oversized tennis balls trail like ducklings after anybody carrying a racquet bag, while the decidedly more mature spectators who make up the bulk of the crowd munch their way stolidly through packed lunches. Pulling up a folding chair to watch a bit of the all-Pliskova encounter between the twins from the Czech Republic, Karolina and Kristyna, I lose count of the number of people who pause behind me, watch a few points, say, ‘Do you think they’re sisters?’ and drift on. To be fair, the Pliskovas aren’t giving people much of a reason to stay; it’s an error-strewn, staccato affair played with understandably stony faces by both, even by Karolina when she wins.
It’s a relief to drift on and discover Jamie Hampton, the young American who had such a strong French Open, blasting through her third-round qualifying encounter with Gabriela Dabrowski. Hampton’s intensity, even her impatience, is a bracing tonic, and she’s striking the ball beautifully; the few games I’m able to watch are an amuse-bouche for her main-draw match against Agnieszka Radwanska tomorrow.
It’s a young hope from my own nation, however, that finally gets me to arrest my drifting around the grounds and take a seat on Centre, where Heather Watson is about to start against the USA’s Varvara Lepchenko. Diagnosed with glandular fever (mononucleosis) earlier in the year, Watson—now 21 and ranked 48—missed everything from Miami to the French Open while recuperating, and has lost two of the three matches she’s played since her return. When world No. 27 Lepchenko hits a clean return winner off a first serve in the opening game of the match, and earns three break points before converting the fourth when Watson double-faults, the genial pessimism of the spectators is palpable.
Watson, however, is an optimist—an alien quality I observe with fascination—and immediately breaks back and begins to work her way into the match, albeit with some insistence from a leaden-footed and error-strewn Lepchenko, who does not look like the player who reached the third round of Wimbledon last year. Watson’s best quality has always been her fleetness of foot, and at 2-3 on Lepchenko’s serve she chases down a half-hearted volley for break point, then flickers all over the court to break. She goes on to hold, then resumes pressuring Lepchenko, getting low and cracking the hardest cross-court backhand I’ve ever seen her hit.
Discussing her enforced break from the game, Watson points out that it was the first time since the age of six that she’s had more than three weeks off—allowing her to spend more time on her native island of Guernsey than the two weeks she managed in 2012—and credits her consequent renewed enjoyment of the game, saying it lets her hit harder and more freely. She’s also serving beautifully, and takes the first set with an ace.
Lepchenko improves in the second set. The rallies get longer and longer, primarily because, of all things, the American is keeping the ball in the court more. But Lepchenko’s limited movement lets Watson, not one of the game’s big hitters, rely on placement rather than power. In many ways it’s an ideal match for Watson, who feeds on pace, and at 4-4 her seamless transition from scrambling defense to attack—and a cluster of those strong cross-court backhands—helps her break Lepchenko at love.
If Watson’s lack of match fitness is going to rear its ugly head, serving for the match is a perfect time. A double fault and errant forehand give up a break point, but Watson produces a strong serve and follows it in boldly to save it, then holds her ground against one of the best sequences of groundstrokes Lepchenko has produced to elicit the error and seal the match. Waving to the crowd in the sunshine, it couldn’t be a greater contrast to her misery in rainy Edgbaston last week after her defeat to Alla Kudryavtseva, reflecting the unpredictable mixture of good days and bad days that have characterized her recovery.
Talking to the press, Watson’s sparkling demeanor matches her eye-catching nails (‘gold to win’) and the insouciant streak that’s disguised by her soft voice is on full display. Asked if she reads the papers during Wimbledon, she answers that she’s told not to, but adds, "I just look at the pictures."
It doesn’t take long for the questions to turn towards Wimbledon—where Watson, like her opponent today, made the third round in 2012—and the pressure of playing on centre stage in terms of crowd and press attention, if not Centre Court. Watson is unequivocal in her refusal to consider any of that as a negative. "For me that’s the best thing about tennis, is playing on a centre court in front of everyone and winning, that’s just the best feeling in the world, that’s why I do it." She pauses briefly and adds, "Second is the free clothes."