To celebrate the start of the grass court season, I have taken the opportunity to snatch up tickets for the first two days of Nottingham Open, a combined ATP Challenger and WTA250 event held at the Nottingham Tennis Centre.
I caught an early morning train from London and settled in my seat for a 1h30min journey through the picturesque scenery of the English Midlands, the type that makes you half expect to see a hobbit out on a stroll. The sun, in an unusual yellow hue, shone brightly over the blue skies and it promised to be a very agreeable day for a bit of pro-level tennis.
Upon arrival in Nottingham, I checked into my hotel, dumped the bags, and excitedly took a taxi to the tournament grounds. It was the first day of the tournament—the ladies were taking part in the qualifying rounds and the men have not yet had a reason to take their racquets out of their bags, so I didn't expect crowds. But even with that in mind, the place had a surprising feel of a sleepy American Midwest town with small groups of fans standing around wearing that uneasy expression of someone who, upon arriving at a station, is suddenly not sure whether they took the right train.
I went for a stroll around the grounds determined to discover everything they had to offer, but after taking a few steps in the direction of what looked like the nearest tennis court, a burly man approached me asking whether I am a member of the general public.
I looked at him somewhat taken aback—over the years I have been labelled many things but rarely was I so seamlessly integrated into a corporate action plan. Clearly, the man, upon learning that he is stewarding for the Nottingham Open, had been told that the general public will be attending, and lo and behold, on his first day at work, the general public was there as forewarned, standing around sheepishly and looking aggressively at the tennis grounds he was there to keep safe and organised.
When I confirmed that, indeed, I just came in from the outside where the general public is known to preside, I was told to sit down in one of the lawn chairs, generously sprinkled around, and wait for the tournament grounds to open.
Confused, I looked back to the gate I just walked in through, taking a second glance at the staff who scanned my tickets, took my temperature, and wished me a lovely day, then down to the day-pass bracelet I was given so that I could move freely around—all firm indications of the grounds being open. However, the man's stern gaze told me it's better not to press the matter so I took my seat and patiently waited for the grounds to open a bit more.
After a while, with no discernible change in the state of the grounds and fans starting to mill around leisurely, I decided that I've done my duty to the order of the tournament and resumed my exploratory trek.
Nottingham Tennis Centre is not a large complex—it took me less than 10 minutes to make a full circle—but it's rather pleasantly set up. Right in front of the entrance is the looming, blocky structure of the centre court, slotted next to the main building which, over the course of the day, continued to dispense players and coaches with regularity.
I walked past the player dispensing building towards practice courts hoping to catch a glimpse of early action, but the whole area was warded off by security, and some distance away, with a set of hard courts between me and the players having joyful training sessions on the green. I watched on with a longing look in my eyes as the figures in the distance traded groundstrokes, put away volleys and practised the pin-point precision of their serves. Most of them were blonde and of female persuasion but it was too difficult to say who they were.
I circled the grounds and approached the centre court from the other end. To my right, in the middle of a six-hard-court-area stood a lone coffee shop looking like the last surviving business after an apocalypse. It had an optimistically-sized queuing area fit to handle about a hundred people. I made my way through the zig-zagging, winding lanes, feeling like the titular character of the Snake game, and presented myself in front of a cheerful lady who called me 'love' and 'sweetheart' but then charged me £6 for a sandwich. If the sandwich wasn't filling enough, the price ensured that I was able to suppress hunger for the rest of the day.
I continued towards the centre court, behind which lay four beautiful grass courts. Say what you want about the superiority of one surface over another, there is no sight in the tennis world as beautiful as grass courts ready for play—the green, contrasting with the blue of the sky and the whitely-clad figures trudging around it—all making for an aesthetically pleasing effect.
I took a seat in the stands of Court 2. The scoreboard indicated that Coco Vandeweghe and Marina Melnikova were about to start playing the first qualifying round match of the day. After a while, the blue shirts of the line judges and the green ones of the ball kids appeared on the court, confirming that a match will indeed take place, and not long after, the players came out to the applause of a thinned but tennis-hungry crowd.
About one-third of the fans in attendance were Americans, cheering for their favourite, Coco Vandeweghe, so the rest of us were made to feel like we had to make a choice ourselves—I rooted for the Russian player, and the other guy appeared to fall asleep.
Coco Vandeweghe may not form part of the tennis elite but, like most professional tennis players, she is a joy to watch—her groundstrokes are slow and measured but powerful, and delivered with exhausting accuracy. She is athletic beyond belief and gets to the kind of shots that make you jerk in your seat as if you’re trying to lend her that extra inch of reach and propel her just a little bit further.
The boisterous American is not the kind of a person to hide her emotions on court, frequently voicing displeasure with the quality of her own game, and, for different reasons, with her opponent’s.
A lot can be said about the difference between watching tennis on television and in person, but for me, it’s the little things that matter.
To have a professional tennis player cast you a cold look as they’re attempting to serve, and you, with a tickle in the back of your throat, are trying not to cough, making those little sputtering noises and turning different shades of green, to then have them play out the point, and lose it, and mumble to themselves with audible curses and less-than-kind words about the state of the world in general only to remember you, the sputtering idiot, having the audacity to breathe as they’re trying to play tennis, and then cast you another look, this time slightly more loathsome… That’s the kind of experience you can only get courtside.
I retired to my hotel, on the way back stopping at a little cafe for an early dinner and a cocktail. The sign outside indicated that the place is having a 2-4-1 Happy Hour, but judging from the expression of the staff, the two hours that I was there were rather unhappy.
The next day, I got up first thing in the morning and made my way over to the tournament grounds. The sky was overcast and it threatened to rain so I wanted to get there early and see some tennis before the inevitable suspension of play.
As I was getting out of the cab, the sky opened up and I just about managed to make it inside one of the tents set up for spectators in case of such eventuality. The rain eased off slightly and turned into a misty drizzle which might have been a playable condition on clay courts, but it turns grass into an ice rink. In any case, the tarps were over the courts which were getting blow-dried. I spent the next few hours walking around idly and waiting for an announcement.
Finally, around 2 pm, the ground staff, officials, and ball boys and girls streamed out of their hiding place and took to the courts, not long after followed by the players.
The first player I spotted was Viktor Troicki. In fact, I spotted him twice—once when he was making his way over to his designated court, and shortly after again when he was turned around by a member of staff for not obeying the little arrows on the ground that indicate the direction of movement, and made to walk around.
He made it eventually and began warming up for his match against Alastair Gray. Knowing Troicki’s grass court prowess, I made my way over in anticipation of an inspired rendition of serve-and-volley.
It’s a forgotten art, one that harks back to the early days of tennis, and that except for grass, has largely gone out of use. The few remaining proponents treat serve-and-volley either as a gift shop novelty or as serve-and-why-bother.
Viktor Troicki did not disappoint. In fact, as if trying to make up for his colleagues’ lacklustre netplay, he charged the net on every serve, return, and otherwise lacking shot, jumping, stretching, and rolling around to the accompaniment of his own groans. It pleased me immensely so I stayed the whole match to witness Troicki’s victory. His opponent, a young Brit with a sleek one-handed backhand that he used to great effect, largely stood no chance but some of the points the two players contested were worthy of the highest praise.
One court over, Marius Copil was playing James Ward, a Davis Cup champion and a former British number 2. Again, the tennis on display was mouthwatering and in the end, Copil overcame Ward in two tight sets. For a while, I sat next to Ward’s coach who, apart from an occasional “Come on, Wardie!”, remained glued to his phone and seemed relatively bored.
On my way out of the tournament grounds, I stopped for a cup of coffee at the abandoned coffee stand. To my surprise, Dan Evans was there getting an espresso himself. There is something comforting about the fact that in the great banquet of life, the 25th racquet in the world waits in the same queues as I do. I set off to my hotel with a renewed sense of fairness.