I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham on Friday, the first time I’ve ever attended a Wimbledon warm-up event. I had such a good time that I’ve booked up for next year already! Here’s a brief synopsis of my nine hours in Edgbaston.
This is such a good event; granted I was fortunate to be on the good side of bad weather for a change; rain delays throughout the week had meant a backlog of matches to be caught up on Friday. There were plenty of top names in action; defending champion Angelique Kerber had to perform double jeopardy on Friday by playing both her second round and quarter-finals matches. She was not alone; Carla Suarez-Navarro, Yanina Wickmayer, CoCo Vandeweghe and Barbora Strycova all had to complete the same task. The event centres on the impressive Ann Jones Centre Court but the other secondary courts are so quaint it is impossible not to adore the tranquillity of them.
The club is walking distance from Birmingham city centre and is in a beautiful part of the second city. As well as this, and crucially, it is competitively-priced; £40 for what would have ostensibly been four quarter finals is very good value in the current UK sports market. Birmingham is working hard to attract better players and with the calendar now being a lot fairer and allowing an extra week of grass court tennis in the build-up to Wimbledon, this event is surely going to continue to grow. I think that in the next couple of years, you might get more and more of the very top players choosing to come here instead of Eastbourne which immediately precedes SW19; Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kerber had all made the decision to come this year.
As it happened, of those four headliners only Kerber survived until the Friday. She safely negotiated a three-set victory over Australian Dasha Gavrilova in a fun, feisty match before later succumbing to Carla Suarez-Navarro. I missed the entire latter match bar the last game as I was watching another quarter-final out on Court 1, but the game I did see allowed me to see the Suarez-Navarro backhand in all its beauty – my one regret from my day in Birmingham is that I missed this match. Jo Konta, the British number one fresh from arriving in the top 20, was dismantled by Yanina Wickmayer in a delayed second round match; when the Belgian hits this hard and this accurately it is hard to fathom why she hasn’t achieved more in her career. The reason why she hasn’t achieved was evident a couple of hours later when her shots were clearing the lines rather than hitting them in her straight-sets defeat to CoCo Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon last year and could go deep again if she continues to feel at ease on grass. Just to go back to Jo Konta briefly, I’ve now seen her play in Budapest, New York, Paris and Birmingham and she has lost each time. Barbora Strycova is always one-to-watch on grass, as is former Wimbledon semi-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova and they produced a highly-competitive two-set match out on the same court, with Strycova rightly coming out on top. No seed will want to see either of those in the first two rounds at Wimbledon.
The match I had been really looking forward to seeing was Madison Keys up against teenager Jelena Ostapenko. I’d seen Ostapenko play years ago on the junior circuit at the Astrid Bowl and she looked like one to watch then. She has gone on to win Junior Wimbledon in 2014 before rising into the Top 40 at the time of writing. Put plainly, her star is ascending. Keys has got two years on her in terms of experience and game, and it showed. I often forget that Keys isn’t into her mid-20s such is the maturity she shows on court. Ostapenko matched her every inch of the way in the first set and looked the likely winner when she took it, but Keys figured her game out and found a way to win pretty comfortably in the end. It was no surprise to see her go on and lift her second WTA title earlier this afternoon (the other was on grass in England too), beating Suarez-Navarro and Strycova in the latter stages. She’s been rewarded for her run here by entering the Top 10 for the first time and she is finding the consistency to mean she can stay here.
The day was topped off by a fun doubles match, including two of my favourites Heather Watson and Elina Svitolina on opposite sides in a match that didn’t conclude until 8.25pm. Watson’s team of her and Naomi Broady came out on top – Svitolina’s partner? Jo Konta of course! I really ought to give Konta a break for a while.
Nine hours of tennis, my idea of a good day out. Thanks, Birmingham Classic!