STARNBERG, May 19, 2020
With the tennis schedule thrown into disarray over recent months, most of the talk among governing bodies has concerned what is to be rescheduled and what will simply be cancelled for 2020. But this has also opened up the opportunity for discussions over which of the tournaments really matter.
For the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the sport’s UK governing body, it comes as no surprise that the biggest topic for discussion was Wimbledon. However, once the inevitable decision was made to cancel it for 2020, it cleared the way for some blue sky thinking about the other tournaments that take place in the country. This has led to the LTA making a surprising announcement that the National Championships, a tournament that was last played in 2002, is set to make a return later this year.
About the National Championships
The Nationals, as they are affectionately known, were once as established a part of the British summer as cream teas and warm beer. The tournament was open to British players and featured men’s, women’s, doubles, wheelchair and junior categories. However, interest dwindled at the turn of the millennium, not so much from the fans as from the broadcasters and the players themselves.
Tim Henman was the biggest name in British tennis 20 years ago, and when he stopped turning up for the Nationals, the media also started to lose interest. When the BBC decided to bring an end to its TV coverage, it was the final nail in the coffin for the Nationals, and it was unceremoniously ditched after the 2002 event, which also drew disappointingly small crowds.
New Nationals in changing times
Fast forward to the post-Corona 2020s, and things will be very different. Tennis fans across the globe are desperate to see some action, and internet technology from live streaming to online bookmakers to mobile apps will bring it to them. The LTA clearly sees the lack of any international tennis action in the UK as the perfect opportunity to put the spotlight on the domestic game and home-grown talent.
As well as serving as nourishment for tennis-starved fans, the Nationals will also provide a much-needed opportunity for the pros to dust off some cobwebs. A national event is especially appropriate for this given that international travel will probably be subject to restrictions and complications for some time yet.
As such, the “Henman effect” that caused so much damage to the tournament two decades ago is unlikely to be a factor. Andy Murray’s manager, Ugo Colombini, has confirmed that the nation’s highest-profile tennis pro is keen to take part, while his brother Jamie, who is better known for his doubles play, will also feature. Among the top women, Johanna Konta and Heather Watson are rumored to be in the frame.
A new-old type of tennis
Britain is not the first tennis-playing nation to announce a revival of this tournament format. In fact, national tennis tournaments are being tentatively arranged in countries across Europe in the absence of traditional world tour events.
For those who played in the Nationals in their heyday, the news has prompted nostalgia and reminiscence. Tim Henman was transported back a quarter of a century and talked about how he recovered from 6-1, 3-1 down in the 1995 final to beat Greg Rusedski in three sets. He repeated the feat the following year, again beating Rusedski from a set down, but this time, having flown to Hanover to play a night match in the ATP finals between the semi final and final.
Despite being on the wrong end of those two matches, Rusedski also remembers the Nationals with affection. He said it had always been one of his favorite events and “it will be great if it comes back.”
At present, there are still as many questions as answers surrounding the new-look Nationals. What we do know is that the tournament will include men’s, women’s, wheelchair and junior categories, but doubles will probably not be a feature. The LTA has also stated an intention to run it “later in the year” on indoor courts. At present, however, there is no more detail available regarding the exact dates or the location.