As the low, wintry afternoon sun slants from behind the ridges of Rombald’s Moor, everything is peaceful at Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club. In the distance, a pre-teen Sharapovette with pigtails shanks a forehand wide. Her curses drift over on the still, chilled air. In the winter of 2015, though, it was a very different scene. The Wharfe burst its banks, and the tennis club was underwater.
‘It was bit of a problem,’ Chairman Stephen Hepplewhite notes drily, watching through his rimless glasses as the club’s cat, Stripe, rolls around on the club’s new decking area and mews pointedly. Softly spoken, Stephen joined the club 18 years ago. He’s got a touch of Peter Davison about him, with a right eyebrow which jumps upward excitedly when a point requires extra emphasis. You can excuse the eyebrow for getting a little jumpy: preparations for the third edition of the Aegon Ilkley Trophy this summer are underway, with a bumper prize pot boosted from $100,000 to $250,000, making it the highest-value Challenger event in the world. Plus, there’s the tantalising promise of a wildcard entry to Wimbledon for the champion.
‘It’s a tremendous coup for Yorkshire, never mind Ilkley,’ says Stephen. ‘It’s something to be proud of.’ The Lawn Tennis Association agrees: having given Ilkley the tournament to fill a spare week between the French Open and Wimbledon and extend the grass court season in 2015, they’ve confirmed that Ilkley will have the tournament until 2018.
The LTA and Sport England made up a million of the £2.5 million needed for the refurbishment last year, and the club is now the complete article: 14 grass courts, five indoor courts and six outdoor hard courts, plus a new gym, fitness classrooms and spinning studio. This is where the players relax while the tournament is on. ‘It’s very strange – the first time I’ve ever seen a table tennis player do a double-handed backhand,’ Stephen says as we wander around.
It’s a far cry from the small green hut which comprised the clubhouse when the club formed in 1880. Everywhere there’s the sense of a 21st century reinvention, a highly-polished frictionlessness. It still smells of paint and freshly-spritzed floor polish. Three vertical fluorescent strip lights hang voguishly above the staircase. Even Stripe and her companion cat have had new homes built for them, at the suggestion of an 8-year-old member.
With the increased bounty, as well as the two successful tournaments behind it, the Aegon Ilkley Trophy is becoming a very big deal. As a primer for the grass court season it’s about as good as you can get. Even if Queen’s, which runs in the same week, tends to hoover up the superstars, Ilkley’s tournament attracts top-100 players from across the world – Taiwanese Yen-Hsun Lu, a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in 2010, took the men’s prize last year.
Understandably, Queen’s is a big draw, but, with the prize money and wildcard, Ilkley is ‘next in the pecking order now,’ says Stephen. Ilkley’s pull is already such that players who don’t get in at Queen’s will pile into cars, trains and anything else that’s available to get from Kensington to Ilkley in time for the Friday-night sign-up. So what do the international players make of Ilkley?
‘They can’t believe it. One of the things that seems to happen is they talk on Twitter a lot, and there’s a lot of buzz about it: “Oh, you must come here, the people are so friendly.” And we make it friendly because we have so many volunteers and I think that creates a different flavour. But the scenery and the set-up is something,’ says Stephen over a flat white in the club café, which looks out over the deep green outdoor grass courts. ‘One of the tell-tale signs is that when people get knocked out, they stay.’
While the prizes on offer at Challenger events can be huge, most players aren’t that flush. So, local Ilkley families volunteer to save players the expense of a hotel room by taking them into their homes for the tournament. Last year, Stephen and his wife put up American Maria Sanchez, Johanna Konta’s doubles partner. Small wonder, then, that in a poll which Stephen saw at Surbiton Tennis Club last year, players said Ilkley was the friendliest tournament they’d played at. ‘And that’s all thanks to the volunteers,’ he says. ‘They want to be here.’
The rituals and pageantry of grass court tennis are deeply woven into the weft of English summertime, and the LTA’s support of clubs like Ilkley is critical to its survival. Equally, the ongoing health of grass court tennis is indebted to clubs like Ilkley, and the LTA knows it. ‘Britain is one of the only countries which really promotes grass,’ says Stephen. ‘If we don’t keep grass court tennis going then it could actually go. There’s hardly any other tournaments in the world which run on grass.’
The club’s pushing to get as many people involved as possible. ‘One of my guiding things for my term is inclusiveness,’ Stephen explains. ‘Tennis is definitely seen as a middle-class sport, and our job is to overcome that.’ To that end, the first three days of competition are free for everyone, and the club has partnered with the charity LS29, which supports children and young people with additional needs, to put on free tennis sessions.
‘We try and do the right thing, and be part of something which is fun,’ says Stephen. ‘This isn’t a life and death situation: it’s a sports club.’
The Aegon Ilkley Trophy runs 17–25 June this year. For more info on tickets and how to get involved as a volunteer, go to www.iltsc.co.uk