Hidden away in the heart of Birmingham, imposing itself between magnificent greenery and lofty trees sits the Edgbaston Priory Club, home to the annual Women’s Tennis Association’s AEGON Classic. As a major part of the Women’s Tennis Tour calendar since 1982 and a valued grass court warm-up event for Wimbledon, the tournament has previously been won by many big-hitting stars such as Billie Jean King, Maria Sharapova and Li Na. Despite being a big Tennis fan (or rather someone glued to the television from the opening match of the French Open to the Wimbledon Final), I had never had the pleasure of experiencing this sporting contest first-hand and unmediated.
Even though the event was intended as a counterpart to the simultaneously-running Men’s AEGON Championship at London’s Queen’s Club, due to a lack of publicity and media interest, the tournament felt like a secret from the world’s press and popular consciousness, a little niche event only attended by those who know that it’s on and where it is. This is certainly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can feel like the Women’s event is not as important as the Men’s (and speaking to people who live in Birmingham it is clear that its marketing and promotion is severely lacking) but equally, the seclusion and secrecy that this allows imbues one with a sense of superiority over the unknowing masses, as if a member of a private club who meet clandestinely to enjoy the cream of contemporary Women’s tennis.
The site’s Centre Court, named after Birmingham-born 1969 Wimbledon Champion, Ann Jones, compliments the event’s hushed camaraderie with its modest capacity and intimate architecture. Soon to become a Premier Tennis venue in 2014 (to be no doubt followed by a price increase from this year’s bargain offerings), Centre Court features immaculate grass covering, comfortable seats and exquisite views from everywhere on the Court. The only thing better than the calm beauty of its leafy surroundings however was the tennis on display. The Court played host to the Singles Final between Slovakian tour veteran, Daniela Hantuchova, and 16 year old Croatian player, Donna Vekic, in a perfect encapsulation of warm-up tournament spirit, the old hand versus the young pretender, the favourite versus the underdog.
With an enthusiastic crowd behind them (but regrettably many empty seats) the two players began the contest for the prized trophy beneath a cloudy sky under which lay a blazing sun that always threatened to force itself through but only did so sporadically. Despite a vast difference in experience and age ( a 14 year gap between the two competitors) this gulf did not readily show itself and even when Hantuchova broke Vekic’s serve in the 5th game, Vekic fought back valiantly to level the match once more. After a tight first set in which Hantuchova eased into the lead through a tie-break victory, the loyalty of the Birmingham crowd was heard with extravagant individual chants of ‘Come on Donna’ and louder cheers when the young Croatian picked up breathtaking points. As the second set unfolded, it was clear that the court’s intimate setting helped Vekic to recover from her first set defeat as she unveiled a stronger game imbued by continuous encouragement from the crowd. However, despite Vekic’s best efforts, Hantuchova’s wealth of experience led to an improved game as she looked to capitalise on her opponent’s fragility and naivety and clasp her hands around the trophy. Finishing 7-6, 6-4 after a ferocious battle, both players were gracious and respectful in victory and defeat much to the delight of the passionate crowd. We may not have been watching Shakespeare at the REP but with the Ann Jones Centre Court as the stage, both heroines performed wondrously until Daniela Hantuchova stole the show with a powerful second set offering leading to a rapturous applause from all around the modest stadium, red-defining the world Classic in the process.
Low on attendance but high in passion, lacking in publicity but drowning in enthusiasm, I am sure the AEGON Classic in Edgbaston will continue to grow year on year especially now that its venue status has been upgraded. There is, however, something heart warming and special about its modesty and its set up in the middle of Edgbaston’s grandiose greenery that may disappear if Women’s tennis begins to grow into the same sort of phenomenon as the Men’s game. I guess the debate between secret and elect or commercial and mainstream will rage on as long as some of the rallies on Ann Jones but one thing’s for certain, this year’s Classic served up an ace and demonstrated that, at least for the time being, there was no love lost for Women’s Tennis in Birmingham, or at least those savvy enough to attend.