Devonshire Park, in the heart of the sleepy seaside resort of Eastbourne, may attract Grand Slam champions and former world number one players for the pre-Wimbledon event, but tennis tournaments have long been part of the history of the genteel English town.
The first small tournament held at Devonshire Park was for women only in August 1881, and the following year there was another Singles competition for the women. Men’s tennis appeared in September 1882 and was deemed a success.
According to The Field sports newspaper from September 1882, “Although Eastbourne has had many lawn tennis meetings during the last two seasons, at various times these have been limited to residents and those players who were visiting the now fashionable watering-place.
“So successful were these tournaments there, and so well appreciated by the habitués of the Devonshire Park, that Captain Holman – the energetic secretary – determined to hold one on a larger scale, and open to all who might choose to enter.”
Women’s Singles tournaments gained popularity throughout the 1880s, and became know as the season-ending South of England Championships each September.
These Championships saw a trio of English ladies dominate the titles – Dorothea Chambers (five-time champion), Blanche Hillyard (11) and Charlotte Sterry (four). Ireland’s May Langrishe, a native of County Kilkenny, won in 1889 and 1890.
The first tournament after World War One saw the inaugural overseas winner, Californian ace Elizabeth Ryan taking the 1919 crown.
And Ryan made it a hat-trick of wins by claiming the glory again in 1920 and 1921. Irene Peacock, born in India but a South African citizen, took over the mantle as Eastbourne champion in 1922.
Phoebe Holcroft (later Holcroft-Watson) reached all six finals from 1923 and won five times but finished runner-up in 1924. Phyllis King finished a three-time winner (1930, 1933 and 1939) and Chile’s Anita Lizana was crowned 1936 champion.
Yet the first player to take the Women’s Singles crown at both Wimbledon and Eastbourne was Britain’s Dorothy Round in 1934.
After World War Two tennis tournaments started to be dominated by Americans, although not Eastbourne as the South of England Championships collided with the United States Championships at Forest Hills in New York.
Ann Haydon was a raw talented 18-year-old from Birmingham when she defeated fellow Brit Angela Mortimer in 1957 – both went on to be crowned Wimbledon champions, Haydon winning at SW19 in 1969 under her married name of Jones and taking the top honours at Eastbourne in 1970.
Australian Faye Toyne, the 1964 champion at Eastbourne, became the last overseas player to win at Devonshire Park before the Open Era paved the way for richer pickings on the tennis circuit with prize money and sponsorship permitted.
Eastbourne’s South of England Championships was moved to July, becoming a post-Wimbledon event in 1968 and 1969.
Open Era: Wimbledon warm-up
The following season Eastbourne first became a Wimbledon warm-up tournament and has continued to stage the competition prior to The Championships, which has attracted top quality players.
But this affected the chances of a Brit winning at Devonshire Park with Jones (1970) and Virginia Wade (1975) the sole English players to succeed on the Eastbourne grass.
Since Wade finished runner-up in 1976, not one Brit has reached the final. There was no Women’s tournaments at the 1973 South of England Championships, and between 1974-2009 there were no Men’s events held Eastbourne.
Martina Navratilova, the Czechoslovakian-born American legend, dominated Eastbourne from the 1978 through to 1993 to become the Centre Court crowd’s overwhelming favourite player and collect 11 Singles titles. But she had a falling out with the organisers when she requested a wildcard entry as a veteran, only to be told that she had to go through the Qualifying Rounds – she fell at the final hurdle and has rarely returned to Eastbourne.
It was not the sort of treatment she had expected having appeared in 13 Eastbourne finals, and winning at Devonshire Park then Wimbledon a fortnight later on seven occasions.
American Chris Evert (1974 and 1976) and Czech Jana Novotna (1998) also achieved the feat of being crowned Eastbourne champion then Wimbledon winner two weeks later.
When the Eastbourne event merged with the Nottingham Men’s tournament in 2009, the public anticipated a mini-Wimbledon and were left disappointed by such a meagre line-up of Men compared to the Women.
The Ladies draw tends to be strong, with the majority of the world’s top 20 involved as their last warm-up before they venture up to SW19 for the world’s biggest tournament on the WTA Tour.