Just three weeks after coming to the city to launch the AEGON Classic, an occasion which was hijacked by Heather Watson’s bizarre claims on an Olympic gold medal. Roger Draper was back in Birmingham on Tuesday working to address an image problem.
Nothing new there, you might say, however this time it wasn’t the LTA’s reputation which needed a bit of TLC, nor even his own, which tends to take a battering every time there’s something negative to write about tennis, instead Draper met with local business leaders to raise awareness about the Classic itself.
For those that don’t know – and Draper contends there are too many who fall into that category – the pre-Wimbledon warm-up event traditionally takes place a couple of weeks before The Championships and is played at the Edgbaston Priory Club in Sir Harry’s Road.
And so it has been for the past three decades during which time the event has attracted the game’s greatest female players to the area. Billie Jean King won it twice in the early 1980s and arguably the most famous of them all, Martina Navratilova, took the Maud Watson Trophy in 1989.
Maria Sharapova also breathed life into the event and her own career in 2004 just a fortnight before she dazzled Serena Williams, Wimbledon and the whole world with her split personality of giggly schoolgirl and sadistic competitor.
Since then, though, the tournament has lost a little of its lustre and Draper remains mindful that the tournament slips under the radar.
“We could still walk around the streets of Birmingham and go up and talk to people about the AEGON Classic and quite a lot would say ‘What’s that? I’ve never heard of it’,” he admits.
“A big part of what we are doing is about awareness and engagement. We have got a great sport and international tennis on the doorstep.
“It’s coming through some of these challenges around is it Edgbaston’s? Is it Birmingham’s? Is it Priory’s? Who is the event for? Is it a corporate event? Is it for tennis fans? Can anyone come along? It’s really about putting it on the map.”
Or rather that should be putting it ‘back’ on the map because in Sharapova’s breakthrough years the Classic, then sponsored by furniture store DFS, was about as high profile as women’s tennis got outside the four Grand Slam events.
Indeed when Sharapova won her second Birmingham title in 2005 she beat Jelena Jankovic over three sets in a gripping final that saw the world Nos, 2 and 3 go head-to-head.
To put that into context the Wimbledon final that year was played between world No.1 Lindsay Davenport and eventual winner Venus Williams, who was only 16th in the standings.
However, in 2008, under Draper’s stewardship, the LTA decided to put the Classic out to tender and invited bids from around the country to host the event. It was a kick in the teeth to everyone connected with the tournament.
Edgbaston Priory chose not to enter the running because of the governing body’s ‘increased and onerous requirements’ and world class tennis appeared lost to the city.
Then, almost a year later, the LTA performed a complete volte-face and plunged the situation into farce as they not only claimed the Classic would stay in the city but that they had seen the light and wanted to commit millions of pounds to developing Edgbaston Priory Club.
Many people fell out of love with the Classic during that time and not a year has gone by since without someone expressing surprise that it is still held in Birmingham. In that respect Draper and the LTA have some ground to make up.
And to be fair to them they have certainly put their money where their corporate mouth is. The LTA have provided £5m towards the £12m redevelopment that will see the construction of a new permanent Centre Court, a new indoor facility and upgrades to the clubhouse and car parks.
The whole kit and caboodle will be ready by 2013, although the covered courts will be complete by the time this year’s competition gets underway.
Draper accepts that the 2012 version will be something of a transitional one but with last summer’s winner Sabine Lisicki already committed to defending her crown, against the cream of the British game, the Classic could be returning to something like its best.
Of course, the presence of the leading domestic players makes that more likely and Draper concedes that things went a little awry in 2011 when Anne Keothavong and Elena Baltacha absented themselves in favour of an event in Nottingham.
Watson flew the flag with great determination and came through a couple of rounds, while Naomi Broady won her first WTA match. But that was it, Samantha Murray and Emily Webley-Smith passed without registering their presence.
Happily Baltacha and Keothavong, the top two British women, will be on hand to lead the charge once again this year. “We put some new events on in Nottingham last year to strengthen the grass court calendar but maybe one of the mistakes we made was we made it really appealing to go to Nottingham in terms of winning points,” Draper said.
“It actually paid off for Elena anyway because she won the tournament but the WTA event in Birmingham is our flagship event and we want the British players to support that event. So we are really pleased there is going to be a strong British feel because at the end of the day fans want to see British players and hopefully British wins as well.”
Former Wimbledon Girls winner Laura Robson is another possible entrant and if she confirms her participation, with Watson already signed up, there will be an early reunion of Judy Murray’s Fed Cup squad.
The quartet did outstandingly well in Israel earlier this year when they defeated Portugal, Netherlands, Austria and the hosts to set up a World Group promotion match against Sweden.
With Baltacha hobbled by a foot injury they couldn’t return to the game’s elite for the first time in 19 years. But that should not diminish the fact the women’s game has enjoyed something of a renaissance, admittedly from its very low base.
And Draper would like to see youngsters like Watson and Robson drag the British tennis, and by extension the AEGON Classic back into the public’s consciousness. “We have secured grass court tennis at the Priory for at least 99 years,” he said.
“We have got a brilliant opportunity coming up with the club really opening its doors to the community, the new facilities which are world class and we are going to have some of the tennis players from around the world and the top British players.
“It’s a tournament for everyone, whether you are a tennis fan, a general sports fan and this year we are doing a number of things. We are doing a Ladies Day, Students Day, Family Day trying to tap into all of those audiences.”
n The AEGON Classic will take place at the Edgbaston Priory Club 11-17 June. To book tickets call 0844 209 7359 or visit www.aegonclassic.co.uk.