(Photo – View from path outside Aegon Open Nottingham)
The air clamoured with the sound of people laughing and yelling and participating in activities, a sweet aroma floating roundabout. Music pounded over the the hard courts and mini tennis areas, and twisted between the spacious buildings draped with advertisements.
Over the sparsely populated Centre Court, the burning sunshine lit up the grass-courts… then hid behind the clouds, then emerged again, then disappeared, then gave way to rain.
Welcome to Great Britain. Welcome to the Aegon Open Nottingham.
2015 is the first official year that Nottingham makes the WTA calendar. Previously, the now-International level event has been branded as a higher-tier ITF competition. The champion’s trophy is now named the Elena Baltacha Trophy, in memory of the late 2013 winner, and is the prize a field of 32 WTA players are gunning for.
Today, four of them had the burdensome opportunity of kicking off the grass-court season on the Aegon Open’s Centre Court, as two matches with contrasts of style – and fortune – opened the tournament.
So, who impressed and who did not? And which of the four takes today’s spotlight?
MATCH ONE: KARIN KNAPP (ITA)  VERSUS YANINA WICKMAYER (BEL)
Once a top 20 player, current world number 92 Yanina Wickmayer has enjoyed some of her career highlights on tennis lawns – her favourite surface. And although Karin Knapp, world number 41, was the tournament’s 4th seed, the Belgian’s history was always going to make this one difficult.
This match was one of momentum swings – two of them. For the first set, it was stockily-built Knapp who was threatening away at her opponent’s serve. Yanina whacking the ball however it came, leaving no margin for error. This backfired on her many times during set one, as both her first and second serves alike landed service line (and beyond) in length. Equally, forehands and backhands leapt forward to spray over the lines.
This barely gave time for the women to engage in long rallies – and the number of netted returns is some credit to how good the landed serves were. But when lengthy points got going, it was Karin who came out on the wrong side of them. When Yanina could get her groundstrokes over the net and keep them inside the court (which, had she stopped leaning out of her shots, she would have done more often), she pinpointed the movement of the stronger woman. Knapp may have dictated pace, but Yanina dictated play – and she ran the Italian from side to side until she cracked.
No woman dropped serve for the first nine games of the match – but it was Karin with the break points. However, Wickmayer constrained herself at the right moments, while her opponent faltered. In the final game, Yanina reintroduced the long-rally strategy, and proved the deftness of her netplay – something Knapp proved in the warm-up alone she was rather incapable of doing. The 27-year-old served up two consecutive double faults to first go down set point, and then surrender what she should have had.
From then on, it was one way traffic. A pumped up Wickmayer kept going for her shots, and Knapp – frustrated, and a little pessimistic – just didn’t have the consistency to get past her Belgian opposition.
6-4 6-2, and game, set, match, Wickmayer!
MATCH TWO: AIJLA TOMLJANOVIC (CRO)  VERSUS LAUREN DAVIS (USA)
Her height, the wind, her solid opponent, the scoreline… Everything seemed set against Lauren Davis. And yet, by incredible fight, will and determination, the young American made it three victories in three meetings against Aijla Tomljanovic.
Things weren’t looking good for Lauren during set one. Aijla had come out to play, and was showing off the low, deep groundstrokes that have carved out elite wins in her burgeoning career. Meanwhile, 5 foot 2 inch Lauren was having trouble with her serve – the gusty weather doing her no favours. Tomljanovic took a lead early on.
But all was not lost. Despite their height differences, Lauren proved she could go toe to toe with the young Croat, and as the match wore on, the long rallies didn’t faze her. However, the lead Aijla built up early on came to her aid when Lauren started attacking late in the first set. Slightly more solid, slightly more agile, slightly less erratic and slightly more positive, she resisted a fightback from her American opponent, triumphing 6-4 after having had a 4-1 lead.
The second set was when things really started happening. Down a set and a break, still having trouble with her serve, and with Tomljanovic generally emerging victorious from the long, smack-and-slice rallies, Lauren looked ready to say goodbye to Nottingham. Yet – pivotally – she never gave up. Beginning to produce unexpected winners, she showed a gutsy spirit that kept her level, and got the crowd on her side. While I was making plans to nip away quickly and catch most of Ana Konjuh’s match elsewhere, she was not once counting herself out of this competition. As Aijla served for the match at 5-3, Davis played a terrific, nerveless game to break – and then, at 4-5, 30-30, made a decision that could have changed the course of the match.
Shortly before this point, the rain had begun spitting down. Davis called upon the umpire, claiming the surface was too slippery to compete on. One point later, she continued the insistence, and Tomljanovic agreed.
Thus the two waited several minutes for Britain to stop being Britain. And they may just be minutes that Aijla regrets. Because when play resumed and a tiebreak was forced, Lauren sustained her game and her confidence, while her opponent gave way to unforced errors. Lauren took the tiebreak by the lopsided scoreline of 7-1.
The more accomplished player may have broken to open the final set, but Aijla appeared to retain her frustration. In a point that she herself won, she turned and vented her inner turmoil on the lines judge beside her, telling him, “Come on, you’ve gotta watch!”
It must be said, I can confirm the error of some of today’s calling, thanks to my brilliant seat. But the speed and length at which the girls were striking the ball in the last set made line-watching difficult.
The point is that – especially when you’re still in control, and your opponent is struggling – emotion of that sort is not what you want to show at this stage of a match. Whether it had any effect on the outcome is questionable, though, because one thing defines the last set of the match: Fight.
And that is what came from Lauren Davis. To back up her point that she could stay in the varied rallies, she started to finish them off. Nothing fazed her, and she won the last three games. She stole a match that looked to be her opponent’s all the way through. And boy, did she deserve it!
4-6 7-6(1) 7-5. Game, set, match, Lauren Davis!
BEST MATCH OF THE OPENERS: AIJLA TOMLJANOVIC VERSUS LAUREN DAVIS
Less errors, longer rallies and more tennis. The quality was high, and it got the crowd invested. The ball striking was low, clean and fast, and the games had variety. Best of all, it was a tough battle between two girls who’ll soon be quickly climbing the rankings.
PLAYER OF THE OPENERS: LAUREN DAVIS
Here’s some of what she had to say:
“I think God wanted me to win this match. It was really tough – she was playing really well. I had a slow start and did a lot of errors, a lot of double faults and stuff, but I just feel I really changed round and I kept believing… and played really well. I started serving a lot better, cut down on my errors. I really loosened up.”
“[The rain break] didn’t affect my mentality. I think it was quite a crucial moment, a crucial game… Maybe the rain delay made her think a little bit. I think it worked in my favour.”
“I love [the grass], I prepared well this last week. I was in Eastbourne, just training.”
“I’ve had my ups and downs, [but] I’m playing very well, I’ve improved a lot… I had a good tournament in Charleston, I played really really well there – also at the beginning of the year, too.”
“The tournament is definitely run really really well. I love how they give us the discounts on the restaurants and stuff, and the hotel’s really nice, people are amazing.”
“[Me and Aijla] trained together at the same place for the past five years, so we know each other really well. I knew it was going to be a tough match. She has a big serve, and hits really flat and hard, so I knew that would be a tough challenge in the grass. But I believe I can beat anyone.”
“I want to do really well [at Wimbledon.] I believe the sky’s the limit.”
And as for her coughing during the second set:
“I choked on my own spit! Yeah, I actually was coughing during the point, like it happened right when she served. I was like, “Oh, shoot,” because I didn’t want her to think that I wanted her to miss a serve by it!”
THANKS FOR READING!
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