After very much enjoying my first taste of live tennis at last year's Eastbourne International tournament, I had been eagerly looking forward to this year's tournament, to again take advantage of free admission on the first day. A considerable extra bonus attraction came when it was announced that former Great Britain number one, Laura Robson, would be playing today, in her first competitive action after being injured for the last year and a half following wrist surgery.
The layout of Devonshire Park today was very similar to last year, although this year the free tickets were only available on the gate and not on-line, and unlike last year, a programme was produced, although in truth, it had little relevance to today's action, with no mention of the qualifying rounds, and the focus - understandably - being on the big names in the tournament, the current WTA tour, and the history of tennis at Eastbourne. The 114 glossy pages were a good read though.
On arrival at Devonshire Park twenty minutes or so ahead of the 11am start, a quick scan of the order of play leaflet noted that, rather disappointingly, no tennis was being played on centre court today. For my first game of the day, I headed for court three, one of the outer courts with a rather intimate atmosphere with spectators being very close to the action and making use of fold up chairs along both lengths, to cheer on an English hopeful. It would certainly be a tough ask of Naomi Cavaday, a wild card entry into this qualifying competition and 370th in the WTA rankings, against 10th qualifying seed and 61st in the WTA Rankings, Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru. After Dulgheru strolled through the first game, Cavaday won the next two to take an early two games to one lead. That was to be as good as it got for Cavaday though, as Dulgheru won the next five games to take the first set 6-2. The second set followed a similar pattern to the first - Cavaday won the first game, only for Dulgheru to overpower the underdog, and as Cavaday cut an increasingly forlorn and dejected figure, Dulgheru won the following five games straight, to claim the second set 6-1.
At the conclusion of that game, I turned round to the adjacent court, court four, where a marathon first set was just about to reach its conclusion, where seventh qualifying seed and 58th WTA ranked Kurumi Nara, from Japan, prevailed 12-10 in a tie-break against 85th WTA ranked Spaniard, Lara Arruabarrena. Unfortunately, the second set was not to be as closely fought as the first, with Nara winning the first four games, and although Arruabarrena won the fifth and seventh, Nara eased to a 7-6, 6-2 victory.
After that, it was straight to Court One for the main attraction of the day - Laura Robson's return to the WTA circuit after 17 months out. Even entering the court 45 minutes ahead of the 1.30 start time, I claimed one of the very few seats left as the stands were packed to capacity - forcing many to use vantage points outside to watch the action - to cheer Robson on. Robson is not even currently ranked due to her long absence, but she was hoping that she could ease herself back into competitive action by accepting a wild card entry into the qualifying stage. But she had no luck with the draw, as her opponent was number one qualifying seed Daria Gavrilova, of Russia, who has soared up the WTA rankings to 41st following some great form of late, which has included wins against Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. Given tremendous support by the home crowd, although Robson showed flashes of good tennis, Gavrilova was relentless in her accurate returns, and she coasted to a very easy 6-0 whitewash in the first set. It was something of a relief when Robson avoided a total whitewash by winning the second game of the second set. But that was all she had to show for her efforts, as Gavrilova won the remaining games to claim a 6-1 second set victory. So, a disappointing comeback for Robson and the home crowd, but it was always going to be a very tough ask in her first game after so long out against a player bang in form, and the match will have been beneficial to Robson as she tries to get back into form - indeed, the final scoreline of 6-0, 6-1 was harsh and did not really reflect some good tennis that she played at times, but was ruthlessly swept aside by an opponent in terrific form and confidence.
I then stayed at Court One, albeit switching stands, to watch my third and final full game of the day. It promised to be a good one, with the 2013 Eastbourne champion Elena Vesnina, the Ukrainian ranked 82nd, against 12th qualifying seed and 63rd ranked American Lauren Davis. Unsurprisingly, the first set was extremely even, as each game went to serve and sent the set into a tie-break, but with the score at 3-3, play was suspended with light drizzle settling over Devonshire Park. After about a half hour break, Vesnina went on to win the tie-break 7-4. Davis started the second set strongly, winning the first three games, and quite bizarrely, Vesnina seemed to go into self destruct mode, as she really seemed to lose her composure, increasingly shouting out her frustration and eventually losing the second set 6-1. In the third and deciding set, Vesnina won the first game, but then lost the following four, and really became a beaten woman, as she continued screaming out her frustration, taking it out on the ball by smashing it into the ground and even voiced her displeasure against some of the umpire's decisions. Davis saw the game out comfortably to win the final set 6-3, a win she certainly deserved with a strong all-round game today, and she was a popular winner who remained focused and determined throughout, unlike her opponent.
Although some further tennis was being played on the out courts, I decided I had seen enough for one day just before 6, having taken in around again around seven hours of action and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere again, as I contemplate whether to buy a ticket for Finals Day next Saturday...