Crowds look on at the Aegon Trophy [image: James Jordan; thanks to LTA]
Once upon a time, Nottingham used to welcome some of the biggest names in men’s tennis: from the big-serving Greg Rusedski to six-time Grand Slam semi-finalist ‘Tiger’ Tim Henman, scores of top twenty players briefly made the city their home as they competed in the Nottingham Open, a flagship event on the prestigious ATP tour and once regarded as an essential warm-up event for Wimbledon. But in 2008, after several years of heavy financial losses and dwindling public interest, the event was scrapped. In its place, Nottingham now hosts the Aegon Trophy and the Aegon Challenge, two events from professional tennis’s second-tier Challenger Tour that bring some of Britain’s best young players to the city each summer. With the action getting under way this week – and it being FREE TO ENTER!! – LeftLion caught up with the City Council’s officer in charge of tennis, Peter Whitehead, and, before that, tournament director Paul Hutchins of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to find out what these new competitions, and the Tennis Centre itself, have to offer…
Paul, can you start by giving us a brief history of the Nottingham Open and the Aegon events since they have been in place?
Sure. Tennis in Nottingham really started in 1995 with the Nottingham Open which went through to 2008, when there was a change and this event became the Aegon Trophy
. Then last year we added another event called the Aegon Nottingham Challenge. The Nottingham Open was a men’s event, but we’ve now gone to a men’s and women’s event for two weeks [including doubles].
What have been the high points of the Nottingham Open and the Aegon Trophy?
The old Nottingham Open was a very good event because they had many of the top players here, and it was rather a pity that Nottingham lost that. There was quite a bit of strain in the relationship between the LTA and the Nottingham City Council, but hopefully we’ve put that to bed now and we’re starting off on this path of the two international challenger events, and the association with the City Council is excellent. We’re fortunate that this week in Nottingham we’ve got most of the top women players: Heather Watson, Anne Keothavong, Elena Baltacha and Laura Robson. And in the men’s event we’ve got James Ward, Jamie Baker and Josh Goodall. So the standard is high, particularly from the women’s side, with several top 100 players.
Paul Hutchins, Tournament Director
How important was the Nottingham Open – and the Aegon events now – both as warm-ups to Wimbledon and as stand-alone competitions?
They’re very important events because they are the start of the grass court season, and the grass court season doesn’t last that long. Wimbledon is always the last week in June, first week in July, so the players don’t have that much of a chance to get used to playing on grass. The Challenger tour events aren’t as big as the Nottingham Open was, but we’re gradually trying to build them up, and in Week Two this year we’ve introduced National Mini-Tennis Week
where we’ve created a good opportunity for all the local schools to come up each day. The LTA are really pushing mini-tennis very hard at the younger age groups, and they’ve had a lot of success both in getting the numbers up and getting the standard up.
What kind of impact did the Nottingham Open have in terms of raising the profile of tennis in the city, and what has the Aegon Trophy done to build on that?
That’s a good question, but it’s a difficult question to answer because with this age of television and the internet, it’s quite difficult to get people to come and watch unless they really know the names, and the names people know are Andy Murray, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and that sort of thing. Although the standard here is very strong, it’s actually quite difficult to get people to come and watch. I wish they would more, and maybe we’ve got to do more promotion. But since the Nottingham Open left, the general public haven’t really come as much as I would have liked.
You mentioned earlier some problems between the LTA and the City Council. What exactly were the circumstances that led to the loss of the Nottingham Open?
I wasn’t involved then, but a decision was made to move the men’s event to Eastbourne. It’s always difficult when you move things, and there’s obviously a lot of emotion involved in that. But we’re OK now, and we’ve moved on and people understand, and we’re after these two weeks being promoted.
Have the City Council expressed an interest in bringing back a higher profile event to Nottingham? How likely is that?
I discussed that with the City Council. The difficulty is that, firstly, economically they are tight on budgets as everyone is at this difficult time, and that, secondly, it is difficult to get a date in the calendar. The only dates available are after Wimbledon, and after Wimbledon all the players leave to go to America for the run up to the US Open. We are in discussion with the City Council about bringing other events here, though. The LTA is launching the National Junior Championships here in August, and that will be a long-term situation. There are also a number of big international wheelchair tennis events here in the summer, so strategically the Nottingham Tennis Centre is a hugely important site from the LTA’s point of view.
Nottingham Tennis Centre: geared for wheelchair events
Do the facilities that we have here deserve a bigger tournament than the Aegon Trophy?
Yes, I think they do. I think they are perfectly capable of having a bigger tournament. The grass courts are some of the best in the country. Taking Wimbledon aside there’s maybe only four venues – Queen’s, Eastbourne, Nottingham and Manchester – that have very good grass courts. So, yes, it does deserve a higher quality event, but that comes back to the calendar, and the prize money and the economic situation.
You mentioned earlier that the Junior Championships will be coming to Nottingham in August. Which youngsters should we be looking out for and how far do you think they can go in the game?
Someone like Luke Bambridge, who is based at the National Tennis Centre [in Roehampton
, South London] – he has got two more years in the juniors and he really is a good player. The situation with juniors in every country is that you’ve got to somehow help the players go from being good juniors to being good seniors, and there’s a very big gulf between the two. Now, Luke has proved, as have other British players like Liam Broady and Kyle Edmund, that they’re all very good players in junior terms. Every national organisation would want them, and every coach would want to coach them. They are some of the best in the world. Now what they are working towards is becoming a good senior, and that takes time. Someone like Andy Murray went from junior to senior very quickly, just purely on the sheer talent, discipline, motivation and desire that he had, but it’ll be interesting to see. I’m confident that some of the players I’ve mentioned, including Luke, have got a very good career ahead of them.
What plans do you have for taking the Aegon events forward?
Well we’re very dependant on the calendar, and what the LTA and the ATP want, so after each year we’re in discussion with these people to see what direction it goes in. At the moment we’ve got a very good standard in both weeks, both in the Aegon Trophy and the Aegon Challenge. But it can always be better and we’re always in discussion. I’m hopeful the cooperation we’ve got with the City Council and the Tennis Centre will mean that we can keep progressing it.
British pair Heather Watson (facing) and Jocelyn Rae celebrate [image: James Jordan/LTA]
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Peter [Whitehead], how does the Nottingham Tennis Centre compare with other sites in the UK?
It compares in the sense that [we] are one of the biggest, if not the biggest public venue in the country, hosting nine grass courts of international quality. We’ve got nineteen outdoor acrylic international-size courts, three of which are under a bubble, then we’ve also got eight indoor acrylic international-size courts as well. The geographical location is superb, in the middle of the country for players north, south, east and west.
Does the NTC deserve a bigger tournament than the Aegon events?
In terms of a larger tournament, we had the Nottingham Open for a good 14, 15 years, so it’s a tried and tested venue for hosting major tournaments. Yes, it would be fantastic to get a bigger tournament back here once again; we know it can work, it had done for years, and we’ll do whatever we can to attract one back. I know Paul [Hutchins] is keen to grow these competitions in terms of its popularity and its organisation and its set-up. If they decide a pre-Wimbledon tournament is going to split a men’s and a ladies’ event rather than being together at Eastbourne, or anything should happen to the Classic in Birmingham, we’re open to taking on some of those events as well. It would be nice to think we can get a bigger tournament, but these have to be done years in advance because obviously they have to be planned in the international calendar. And certainly as a grass court tournament leading in to Wimbledon, they have to fit into a very narrow band of time between the French Open and Wimbledon qualifying. Long term, though, hopefully, yes, we can attract a bigger tournament back.
What arrangements does the NTC have in place with local schools to get children to come down and play?
From a schools point of view we have a program called ‘Why Not Tennis?’ that’s run in conjunction with the children’s services through Nottingham City Council. All schools can apply to come down here for a block of six weeks for some coaching: groups of thirty, sixty, or whatever it might be. We can take one class, two classes, three classes. We try and get the youngsters down here because we’ve got the court capacity to cater for such large numbers, which perhaps in schools, certainly at primary level, they wouldn’t be able to deal with. That’s a program we’ve had running for the past several years.
And in terms of the wider community having access to the facilities…?
Could Nottingham produce a young Brit hopeful like Oli Golding? [image: James Jordan/LTA]
From a community point of view we offer a junior and a senior coaching program – the junior program runs throughout the week, with reduced time on Wednesdays [check the website for times]. We have mini-tennis ‘red’, which is 5 to 8 year olds; mini-tennis ‘orange’, 8 and 9 year olds; and mini-tennis ‘green’, 9 to 10 year olds. When they go past ten we do move them on to full ball, which is a normal tennis ball. We deal with youngsters from 12-plus, and we do have squads on top of that which are invitational squads, so people that are progressing well through those public courses and that mini-tennis program we would invite into squads, which are designed to give those players who are looking for it an extra help up and a bit more education and a bit more coaching.
And for adults?
Adult-wise, we do groups during the daytime and the evening. During the daytime they tend to be more ladies groups, then in the evening we kick in with the mixed groups. Apart from that we’ve then got additional activities, we’ve got 50-plus, we’ve got veterans groups that come in; we do cardio tennis throughout the week and we have ladies social activities. We also have a men’s social evening, we also have an adult invitational squad on a Sunday evening. So we do try and put a whole spectrum of courses on for anyone to take part in.
If you fancy catching some of Britain's finest players in action in the heart of the city, head along to the Nottingham Tennis Centre between June 2 and 17. Play is scheduled to start at 11.00am each day, and tickets and parking are free.