The battle may be lost but Edgbaston Priory Club insist the war can still be won following the announcement that the Aegon Classic, formerly the DFS Classic, will leave Birmingham after nearly three decades of thrilling tennis.
The sport’s followers in the region were stunned on Tuesday when the club, which has hosted the traditional Wimbledon warm-up tournament since its inception in 1982, announced they had not entered the tendering process enforced by the Lawn Tennis Association earlier this year.
Robert Bray, Priory’s chief executive, claimed the demands of holding the tournament had been increased beyond the capability of the club and rather than submitting what he described as a ‘weak bid’, his committee felt the requirements of the Women’s Tennis Association – the global governing body – and the Lawn Tennis Association would be prejudicial to EPC members.
Bray pointed to factors like an increase in the number of practice courts and expansion in seating around Centre Court as ones that could simply not be met.
But, despite the disappointment of losing what for a quarter of a century has been known as the DFS Classic, Bray maintained that the city may not have seen the last of superstars like Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic.
“At the moment we are not a future international tennis venue,” Bray said. “But I would not rule out international tennis coming back to the Priory at all. Never say never.
“The LTA claim that we sold 10,000 [tickets] last year and Nottingham sold 15,000. I can’t see how that can be the case.”
Notwithstanding the fact men’s tennis is more popular than women’s in terms of spectators, Bray also feels his club’s cause was not helped by an imbalance in the central funding given to some of Edgbaston’s competitors and rivals.
“If we look at other facilities that could potentially host this tournament Nottingham have had £4?million put into them by the LTA, Eastbourne has had £6?million put in – Edgbaston Priory has not had a penny from the LTA,” he said.
“The ball is in the LTA’s court. If they decide they want to keep international tennis in Birmingham then it is up to them to show that. The venue that has hosted it so well for the last 27 years is no longer able to do so and rather than us putting in a very weak bid we have come clean.”
An increase in the number of practice courts would present problems from the outset. Priory recently upped their provision from three to five but would have to build at least another two – at £60,000 a court assuming the space could be found.
The other major sticking point is the insistence on inflatable covers for the show courts. To introduce those, EPC would have to install a concrete ring around both playing surfaces – virtually impossible given that the tournament’s Centre Court is actually spread across two courts used by members at other times of the year.
It is difficult to see, therefore, a way that the tournament could return to EPC without the club agreeing to some of the requirements deemed too onerous in the current situation.
There is a chance they will be given another opportunity to bid in the medium-term future. The LTA have compromised their original desire to award the tournament for five years and will look at each bid on its merit before deciding the length of contract.
But even if Edgbaston has another chance in five years’ time Bray suspects the requirements will have gone up rather than down and yet another battle will be lost.