Hyperbole and British tennis go together like the names Tim and Andy and the exhortation ‘C’mon!’, so to suggest this year’s DFS Classic could be the most crucial in the event’s 26-year history runs the risk of being dismissed as mere sensationalism.
The notion has more than a granule of truth, however. The tournament, that for various reasons remains the best kept secret in the sport, has reached a watershed and with each high profile pre-competition withdrawal one fears for its future.
Recent weeks have not been kind to the Classic.
First the Lawn Tennis Association proclaim they are giving Edgbaston Priory the ‘opportunity’ to bid for the right to retain an event they have worked tirelessly to establish as one of the most welcoming in the grass court calendar.
Then last Tuesday they were hit by Maria Sharapova’s decision not to come to Birmingham for the first time since 2003, when she shot into the public eye by coming through the DFS qualifiers and reaching the semi final.
The Queen of Edgbaston has been a welcome returnee for each of the last five events, winning twice and bringing a gravitas and profile to which most other Tier III events could only aspire.
In some ways she has become synonymous with the event and her loss will be keenly felt by organisers looking to show the LTA how to organise happy hour in a brewery.
It was only made worse by Friday’s news that reigning champion Jelena Jankovic would not be defending her title because of a forearm injury picked up training to win the French Open. To compound the organisers’ discomfort, defeated French Open finalist Dinara Safina has also decided to give the event a miss.
One wonders if last year’s DFS final which saw the Serb and Russian, Nos 2 and 3 in the world at the time, battle over three sets will be the zenith of an event soon to be consigned to the record books.
Having made clear their intention to redraw the Wimbledon warm up programme – and done little to dispel rumours they want to cut down on travelling expenses by bring every tournament with a short taxi ride of Roehampton, the LTA have been the model of inertia.
While those in Birmingham, not least the EPC and the city council, fret about the prospect of losing the jewel in their summer sporting crown the governing body have not even drawn up the parameters of the tender document.
What would be useful to know is if they see the whole exercise as mere lip-service or whether they just have bigger fish to fry at present. Both are possible. Perhaps they are pondering whether it would be more cost effective to start a new tournament from scratch, invest in the DFS or take the whole thing to Lord’s and hang the consequences.
We should not, nevertheless, let the political wrangling obscure the fact that, for the next two summers at least, the jewel will continue to shine. Not as brightly as it would were Nick Bollettieri’s finest present, but shining anyway.
This year’s cast list is headed by Marion Bartoli, a losing Grand Slam finalist but the 2006 champion Vera Zvonareva is another to have pulled out of the event, citing a cold.
Bartoli surprised even herself by reaching the Wimbledon final last year though perhaps the writing was on the locker-room wall when she made the semi finals at both the DFS and Eastbourne.
Only Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin and Venus Williams beat her on grass in 2007 while Jankovic, Henin, Daniela Hantuchova and Elena Dementieva all fell foul of her heavy slice and quick footwork. Few will fancy facing the Frenchwoman this time round.
And what of the British challenge? Pitiful as ever? Perhaps not. Anne Keothavong, ranked 96, has become the first British woman in nine years to break into the world’s top 100 and while she has a dreadful grass court record, she also has the confidence it can be improved. The LTA will, no doubt, be considerably amused that her best results have come since she sacked her designated coach Simon Walsh.
Incredibly after so many years in the doldrums the women’s game can claim to be in a better state than the men’s, which as a poster on an internet messageboard I read this week said, is like saying you’re not short compared to Ronnie Corbett.
While Andy Murray blazes the trail behind him the UK has just one other man, Jamie Baker, ranked inside the top 200. By comparison Nigel Sears has presided over the rise of five women inside that benchmark.
What a time to be considering getting rid of one of the best tournaments in the country.