How to Have Fun in Eastbourne

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

EASTBOURNE, England—“Welcome to the Sunshine Coast”: These are the words that greet you as you walk off the train at this small seaside town 90 minutes southeast of London. Eastbourne, as more than one local has informed me in the last 24 hours, is the sunniest place anywhere in England. Which makes me wonder: What qualifies as “sunny,” exactly? As long as the clouds aren’t pitch black?

After years of glimpsing the tops of the Victorian homes behind center court here on television, I had expected Eastbourne to be the staidest of vacation villages. It’s certainly peaceful, but it’s also rougher around the edges than I had anticipated, a place whose heyday must have come decades ago, when people in England still spent their summer holidays in England. It’s June, yet enough storefronts remain shut that you could mistake it for the winter off-season. The hotels that line the main seaside street, which is known as the Royal Parade, seem to be reserved for citizens 70 and up. Husbands and wives gather in large groups in the lounges to smoke and watch the water and listen to Big Band music, which floats out toward the sea in the evening. If you were going to make a documentary about Eastbourne, you might start with the title, Cocoon, With Cigarettes.

All of which gives the oceanfront a surreal, melancholy, Gatsby-esque beauty, like an empty set from a Jazz Age movie. The main street is lined with lawn gardens and blue, Deco-era railings and light fixtures, and the gravelly beach is virtually deserted by day; on Monday, the loudest noises came from the imperious seagulls that perch on the highest points in town before swooping down to head level. The water was silvery and rough, and the pier that juts far into the sea, with its shuttered fudge shops and archaic amusements, was eerily silent except for the fishermen working and cursing at its far end. One restaurant on the pier was closed, yet its chairs and table settings were still perfectly arranged, seemingly ready for a dinner that took place in 1918. The film I was reminded of this time was The Shining, if Jack Nicholson had spent his fateful winter by the ocean rather than the mountains.

All in all, it’s an unlikely place for many of the world’s best tennis players to gather. Most of them stay on the main drag at the Eastbourne Center, a dark, modernist concrete pile that stands out among the older hotels. When I was getting directions to the tennis center, one Eastbourne resident told me, “Walk until you see the ugliest hotel in the world, and then turn right.” He was referring to the Eastbourne Center—it's not pretty, but it’s not that bad. As I was walking back along a sidestreet, I saw Li Na and her husband coming the other way, possibly looking for something to eat. They peeked into the fish and chips place on the corner, but decided to keep going. Running into Li Na on a mostly deserted side street in Eastbourne: Now that’s surreal.

The tournament is held in Devonshire Park, a few blocks from the water. Lawn tennis has been played here for more than a century. The event was WTA-only from 1974 to 2008, until the British tennis association moved its ATP tournament here from Nottingham in ’09. No one I know who has been to the event fails to recommend it, and it’s easy to see why. The entire grounds are grass, both the courts and the viewing areas, which is instantly more relaxing than the steaming cement that fans walk on, and players play on, at most tournaments. Spectators line the outer courts, but finding a spot to watch isn’t difficult; there’s little hustle or sense of hurry, and nothing feels cramped. The pros seem to exist on the same plane as the rest of humanity here, as if we’re all attending the championships at our home club.

As you might expect, Eastbourne has its quaint charms and traditions. Players are told to report for their matches over loudspeakers that can be heard around the grounds. On the side courts, the score is kept manually, by a beleaguered boy or girl who must stand, change the number, and sit back down in the 25 seconds between each point—sometimes it doesn’t go so smoothly. When a match is over, the ball kids charge to the middle of the court and take their places at the center service lines on each side of the net. At times, in their excitement, they get there a little sooner than planned. A ball-kid blockade stopped Lucie Safarova and Klara Zakopalova a few feet short of the net as they tried to shake hands after their match on Tuesday. 

The best spot for viewing is the second show court, known, in the tradition of all English tennis clubs, as Court 1. It also featured the most newsworthy match of this day, between No. 1 seed Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 41 Jamie Hampton of the United States. Hampton had given Aga a good run in Auckland to start the season, but ended up handing over two sets in tiebreakers. She had controlled the points with her pace in that match, and she did the same today. Just like last time, though, Hampton almost gave it away. She was broken while serving for the first set. "I was rattled,” she admitted. “It was little bit like déjà vu.”

This time Hampton kept swinging big, and she started painting the lines again the first-set tiebreaker, which she won easily. It should be said that Hampton was helped by an awful overrule from chair umpire Mariana Alves, who famously reversed a call against Serena Williams at the U.S. Open a decade ago, thus hastening the implementation of Hawk-Eye. This time Hampton was serving at 5-6, 0-15 in the first set and appeared to be reeling. Her next serve landed well long, and was called long by the linesman. But Alves stepped in and, to Radwanska’s astonishment, said it was good. Hampton went on to hold from there.

Of course, that takes nothing away from Hampton’s win. Despite her fourth-round appearance at the French Open, she had to qualify for this event. The extra work is paying off. She told her coach before the draw was made that, “I want to play Radwanska, because we’ve never played on grass...I want the opportunity to play her again and make sure I come out on top.”

Hampton says she enjoys playing junkballers like Aga because an old coach of hers used to like to get under her skin by giving her different looks and mixing things up. Jamie also says that grass is growing on her.

“Last year at Wimbledon,” Hampton said, “was my first match [on the surface], and everyone told me that you’re going to have a ton of fun on grass. You’re going to be able to come forward and take balls out of the air. I’m having a ton of fun on grass, to be honest.” 

I guess a 23-year-old can have fun in Eastbourne, after all. By the end of Hampton's match, the sun really was shining.

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