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Edgbaston Priory Club to formally open the Ann Jones Centre Court

Punters whose annual visit to the Edgbaston Priory Club occurs during the Classic week, will barely be able to recognise the old place.

Ann Jones at Edgbaston Priory’s new centre court
Ann Jones at Edgbaston Priory’s new centre court

The metamorphosis of the AEGON Classic from a homely, intimate little club-based tournament into a more significant yet more sterile place-holder on the WTA Tour is almost complete. And quite a process it has been.

Punters whose annual visit to the Edgbaston Priory Club occurs during the Classic week, will barely be able to recognise the old place as they try to orientate themselves around the new clubhouse, new centre court, new crepe van – new everything, in fact.

Indeed if next week’s weather is as sun-kissed and accommodating as the last few days’, those same infrequent visitors might think they’ve got the wrong place altogether and ask a dozing bobby – there’s usually plenty of them – for directions to the nearest rain-lashed, oft-interrupted women’s tennis tournament.

And the situation is just as discombobulating for commentators who have charted the event’s recent history through chapters entitled Best Kept Secret it Town, Unwanted Inconvenience and Phoenix from the Flames.

After more than a couple of decades of self-sufficient peace and quiet, interrupted only by the emergence of a bright new star like Maria Sharapova or the descent from on high by legends such as Martina Navratilova, the Classic has been jolted to the bottom of its little tennis socks.

Jolted in 2008 and reinvented by 2013 – it’s been some rollercoaster from the low of Roger Draper threatening to take the tournament away from Birmingham, to this Sunday’s high of a star-studded Ann Jones Court opening ceremony that marks the development of new arena and recognises the club’s most famous member.

The former Wimbledon and French Championships winner will watch Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski, Heather Watson and Sorana Cirstea play an exhibition mixed doubles and listen to the sparkling talent of opera singer Laura Wright as the Classic starts on a classical note.

And things will be even better next year following the WTA’s decision to promote the event to Premier 600 status, loosely-speaking Tier II in old money, a move that will increase the prize pot, the ranking points and the calibre of players who come to play in Birmingham.

That means this year’s event, which starts on Monday, will provide a vision of the future, certainly infrastructure-wise even if the cast-list doesn’t contain the A Lister we can expect in 2014.

Indeed Edgbaston has a proud history of attracting some of the sport’s biggest names over the last 31 years, a tradition that started with Billie-Jean King in its’ first two, Martina Navratilova in the early 90s and Sharapova, who first appeared as a giggling and charming teenager an incredible ten years ago.

The potential to attract the best peaked in 2005 when the final was played out between Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic, at the time the world’s Nos. 2 and 3.

The highest ranked competitor this year, at the time of writing at least, is Italy’s world No.15 Roberta Vinci, who might be rated as the best doubles player on the planet but for all of her eight singles titles, has only once reached the quarter finals of a grand slam.

It would be a major surprise if on finals day a week on Sunday the gates opened to a flood of azure-clad Vinci fanatics desperate to see their hero pick up the Maud Watson trophy.

Far more likely victors are former Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli, 2011 Classic champion Sabine Lisicki or even – and you read this here first – last year’s Wimbledon girls’ champion Eugenie Bouchard who, if she will forgive the unflattering simile, has taken to grass like a cow.

But for arguably the first time ever the main story-line will be domestic with Laura Robson and Heather Watson both ranked inside the top 50 in what, in the context of recent generations at least, are halcyon days for British women’s tennis.

Last year Watson, who became the first Brit in a quarter-of-a-century to win a tour title, is battling back from glandular fever, while the prodigiously talented Robson is battling a case of the serving yips. But what is indisputable is that the pair represent this country’s best chance of a Classic champion for 20 years and if that were to happen in 2013, that really would point to a bright future, not just for the AEGON Classic but for all of British tennis.

* The Aegon Classic tennis tournament takes place at the Edgbaston Priory Club from 9-16 June. For tickets visit www.aegonclassic.co.uk/tickets or call 0844 209 7359.

 
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