Idyllic Ilkley A Grass-Court Oasis On The Challenger Tour
The optics at the Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club constantly vary between threatening and sunny skies, as low-slung clouds move aimlessly about. Which makes the hues of green on the grass courts shift between lime and moss with the chalked white lines remaining the only constant.
Grass-court tennis has its own unique style which rewards subtle hand talent over raw power. Shots that are not often used and difficult to practise like the forehand bump and scoop, backhand chip shots, and delicate little slice serves out wide tend to get rewarded more on grass than other surfaces. I suppose the best way to describe a grass-court match when compared to one played on a clay court, would be fishing for trout with a bamboo rod compared to deep sea sport fishing with heavy tackle.
Yuichi Sugita may be out of the tournament, but he is still here in Ilkley on Court 4 practising with his coach, Takao Suzuki. It is a deliberate practice with the simple objective of covering the down the line pass with a soft cross angle volley. Suzuki was a pure artist as a player with his slice approach and touch volleys, and he is teaching Sugita the finer points of grass-court tennis in preparation for Wimbledon. Afterwards, Sugita would stay on the court and max out on his physical conditioning while putting on a most impressive display of high-intensity conditioning training.
Out on centre court, Jason Jung and Alex Bolt are going at it in a tit-for-tat first set. Their match is a classic matchup of raw power (Bolt) versus calculated discipline (Jung). Alex Bolt or 'Bolty' as his Aussie mates call him, is a bit of a firecracker that when he gets hot can really explode on the ball. Especially on the forehand side.
Bolt’s forehand has a cowboy’s lasso loop with plenty of wrist snap pop at the end. Jason Jung seems to be as wary of Bolt’s forehand as a man would be when walking in rattlesnake territory. Jung is a cerebral player who possesses a very high tennis IQ, which can be both a blessing and a curse. One thing is for sure about Jung: he will figure it out or give himself a headache in the process. In the end, patience defeated passion as low risk shot selection by Jung got the best of Bolt, 7-6, 6-4.
Ilkley is a pleasant little town with plenty of local pubs, churches and places to have tea. Shops selling antiques, gardening tools, leather goods, books, cycling supplies, and wool and cashmere clothing line both sides of the main street. One thing you will observe is the amount of times in a 10-minute walk about town you will see a person waiving or calling out to someone. I suppose that tells you all you need to know about the town of Ilkley.
To date, Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Santiago Gonzalez have won 8 matches in a row and back-to-back titles in Nottingham and Ilkley. They recently began working with former ATP player, Jean-Philippe Fleurian. Nicknamed, Sunshine, for his rose-colored Ray Bans’, bright smile and even brighter t-shirts, Fleurian has Qureshi and Gonzalez using his TIGA Method in practices.
The system requires written daily self-assessments and measures progress by an infinite number of repetitive strokes hit into neatly measured zones, while Fleurian jots down numbers and even holds a metronome with a stopwatch to count tempo. It is an incredibly systematic method of coaching and some more cynical coaches might even say an incredibly boring way of practising. But different eyes see different things and there is no denying the big improvement of the Qureshi and Gonzalez team since linking up with Fleurian.
Spectators mingle about behind Centre Court and Court 1, where there is a temporary food court set up. Some sit at picnic tables having a pint of ale or a jug of Pimm’s while eating their meat and two vegetables. I have heard some say that British food is boring, but a quick glance at the menu where Bangers, Trotters, Yorkshire pudding and mushy peas are all available appears to suggest otherwise.
It seems that all around Ilkley are hills and meadowlands covered in purple heather and clover with of ox-eye daisies, buttercup and yellow rattle wildflowers. Centuries-old dry-stone walls about four feet in height used to divide properties and keep sheep from wandering off complete the panorama.