By Ros Satar, in Birmingham
- Tournament Director Patrick Hughesman talks to us about the state of the art changes at Birmingham in one of its most challenging wet-weather years
BIRMINGHAM, UK – Amidst thunder and torrential rain, the investment in the Aegon Classic’s courts and facilities have been tested to the limit this year, as Britwatch Sports talks to tournament director Patrick Hughesman.
At 4:15pm British Summer Time on Thursday (if you can call it summer!) the first round of the Aegon Classic came to an end, as British No. 1 Johanna Konta rounded out a straight sets win over Misaki Doi.
It brought to an end a frustrating time for players, spectators, supporting staff of officials, media and all manner of staff.
Even the most simple things were an issue – parking on the slope of the school nearby was abandoned on Wednesday because cars were slipping down the hill.
The draw was reduced this year from 56 to 32, which gave them some much needed contingency, sadly all used up as the second round and the doubles are now backed up enough to necessitate clearing them by playing indoors.
The grass court season in the UK almost always brings rain but a sense of British stoicism but for belt and braces, the investment made in the club’s facilities have come into their own.
Hughesman explained: “What is good for us now is all the investment that we made with the venue with the club’s facilities, with the court covers, with the drainage around the courts, the new centre court, the work that they’ve done on re‑laying the match courts 1 through 4 and adding drainage around them, and also the work that they’ve done on the three practice courts. Our wet weather provision actually is really good now, so when we do get these little breaks, we can get on.”
State of the art court coverings… and ‘fescue’
Gone are the days of tarpaulins that used to have the rain swept off and the surface water pumped away, and now the courts hide beneath state of the art inflatable covers, but a lot still depends on those covers getting on in a timely manner.
After a day of torrential rain, we waded through a lake while the ground-staff tried to get rid of the surface water on the practice courts.
Yet the grass is of a similar standard to Queen’s Club and Eastbourne – long established as pretty close to the standards of the All England Club.
Hughesman told us: “They changed the mix of the fescue, it’s a slightly different grass mix, the way they do the grass. Now the grass is fairly hard wearing. I’m pretty sure when you look at our courts at the end of the week it will have ‑‑ it won’t have worn out that much. It will have held up really well.”
Mallorca – sun, sea… and turf?
Now that the grass court season has been extended, we have seen the inclusion of sun, sea surf and the WTA International in Mallorca, so what threat does this pose to this long established tournament?
“We can’t beat the Mallorca sun but what are we doing for the players is we’re now able to provide them with practice indoors. So they’ve got three brand‑new indoor courts.
“The player experience is a lot better. We’ve done a lot with the players’ areas ensure that all the food that they get is first class. We’ve liaised very closely with the WTA as far as what the players want. We feel as though we’ve hit that button.”
Of course this is also a Premier event, and there are restrictions on how many of the big names the International level event in Spain is allowed to draw, and of course this is an anomaly of a year, weather-wise, with the Aegon Championships in London also being hit with rain delays.
Ticket sales perhaps the biggest casualty
The real impact though will be felt in the ticket sales, especially as walk-up sales have always played a big part in the tournament’s success.
“About 30, 35 percent our ticket sales is on walk up ticket sales during the week. It’s quite a big percentage. We’re suffering at the moment and we’re probably not going to match last year.
“Obviously if we could finish with a few nice days it would leave a better impression with everyone. For players if they come over here they can stay in this country so they can play Nottingham. We give them free transport from Nottingham to here. We then organise transport for them to go from here to Eastbourne, so that’s all free.
“So there’s a sort of a flow. If the players come over here they can getting they know they’re in one country haven’t got to do all this getting around as it were – I know they’re used to it but if they come here the conditions are going to be similar.”
There is a lot to love about this tournament and this location – when the weather behaves. Birmingham itself is an easy city to get around. The location is in the leafy University suburbs, and the centre has had a lot of regeneration over the years.
We can only hope that the weather gods see fit to smile on the city for the closing stages, or at least that the state of the art improvements help keep it on track for a Sunday finish.
Play continues at the Aegon Classic on Friday starting at 11:30am BST.
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