Illkey serves a warm-up to Wimbledon

Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club groundsman Richard Lord preparing the grass courts for this summer's Aegon Ilkley Trophy.

Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club groundsman Richard Lord preparing the grass courts for this summer's Aegon Ilkley Trophy.

  • Formed 135 years ago with just 60 member families, this summer Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club will enter a new chapter when it stages a warm-up to Wimbledon. Sarah Freeman reports. Main pictures by Tony Johnson.
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You have to be a bit of a perfectionist to do Richard Lord’s job. He’s the resident groundsman at Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club and it’s down to him that each of the 14 courts is so carefully manicured. It’s he who paints each of the white lines, it’s he who monitors the soil temperature which influences how well the grass will grow and it’s also down to him whether the courts achieve the perfect bounce.

“Obviously the weather is out of my control, but fingers crossed we’ve been pretty lucky this year,” he says. “The one thing no groundsman wants is weeks of rain or a prolonged cold spell as at the this time of year you really need the soil temperature to have reached 8C to ensure a good growth for the summer.”

The 54th Open Tennis Tournament in 1954 at Ilkley Lawn Tennis Club.

The 54th Open Tennis Tournament in 1954 at Ilkley Lawn Tennis Club.

Richard, who has also recently overseen a project to reseed the courts with the same grass mix used at Wimbledon, has had a long association with the club. He first joined as a member when he was 12, he later ended up working as a groundsman and after a brief spell running his own landscaping business he returned to the club to take up his old job.

Much has remained the same, but with Ilkley having just won the right to host a major grass court competition, which could prove one of the most important chapter’s in the club’s 135-year history, these are exciting times. The inaugural Aegon Ilkley Trophy will take place in June, slotted into the gap between the French Open and Wimbledon, the international highlight of the short grass court season. While sadly it won’t attract the likes of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, the calibre of those competing for a slice of the $100,000 prize fund will be high. The tournament is set to attract players with a world ranking of between 50 and 200, just under the top seeds, and for Richard that means there will be more eyes on his handiwork than usual this summer.

“I’m not worried, everyone at the club is looking forward to staging this event and we’ve already put in a lot of hard work to ensure we can deliver a top-class event. The courts here are in really good condition, in fact they are probably the best they have ever been. When the competition is underway, I’ll be here at 5am every day giving them the once over and repainting the white lines, but I should be done and dusted in a couple of hours, so I hope I’ll get to enjoy the tennis.

“Groundsmen sometimes get a hard time. Remember Wimbledon a couple of years ago when a lot of the players fell over on the first couple of days? The initial response was that they must have done something different with the courts. Of course, as it turned out, they hadn’t it was just one of those freak events. All of us here have been doing it long enough to trust in our experience.”

Chairman Richard Bourdon checking out the courts at what he regards as the most picturesque tennis club in the country.

Chairman Richard Bourdon checking out the courts at what he regards as the most picturesque tennis club in the country.

At Wimbledon there are six ground staff dedicated to each court. It’s obviously a much smaller operation at Ilkley, but what the All England Club doesn’t have is the dramatic backdrop of Ilkley. Tucked away down a winding road in the centre of town, players struggling with their serve or having a bad day with their backhand will at least be able to console themselves with some pretty impressive views as they break for a change of ends.

“Not bad is it,” says club chairman Richard Bourdon. “I think you would struggle to find a more picturesque club anywhere in the country.” He has a point. Set on the banks of the River Wharfe, the courts look across to Ilkley Moor and the Cow and Calf rocks. “It should be a fabulous atmosphere, but securing the Aegon Trophy is not just great for our members. It’s more than that. It’s another piece in the jigsaw of increasing participation in the sport.”

The question as to why Britain has been historically so poor at producing world class tennis players is one that has vexed the sport’s governing body for decades. Despite the individual achievements of Tim Henman and Andy Murray, there has been little depth to the country’s talent pool and we have grown accustomed to young hopefuls going out in the first round of competitions or not making the cut at all. The Lawn Tennis Association has taken much of the blame for the situation. Historically, there has been criticism over the way it has used its funding, with suggestions too much of its annual budget has been pumped into a small handful of elite players at the expense of more general grassroots investment.

Bourdon is too much of a diplomat to get drawn into the whys and wherefores of LTA policy, but he does believe the organisation is now on the right track. “Tennis isn’t alone in the problems it faces. Getting very young children playing the sport is relatively easy, the trick is keeping them involved through their teenage years and beyond. We work closely with the LTA and already have a significant outreach programme. We now use the courts just down the road at Ilkley Lido to run sessions for those who are unable to afford the annual membership and we also link up with St Mary’s Menston so its pupils benefit from the expertise of our coaches.

“We also run cardio tennis sessions, deliberately targeted at the 16 to 25 age group, where they play to music. As a sport I think we have recognised that we need to try different things.

“Clubs like Ilkley have an important role to play in increasing participation and hosting a prestigious event like the Aegon Trophy is all part of that. We saw what an impact the Tour de France had, not just in promoting Yorkshire, but promoting cycling and while our event is not on that same scale, it has the potential to make a real difference.”

As with the Grand Départ and the London Olympics, Ilkley will also be embracing volunteers to stage the event. Young club members, along with local schoolchildren, will form the squad of ball boys and girls and they are also looking to recruit a games maker-style army of stewards and helpers.

“I think that’s been a really interesting success story of these high-profile events,” says Bourdon. “A significant volunteering element is key to making people feel part of an event and it gives them a sense of ownership over it. We want to give all the players and their teams an incredible Yorkshire welcome and with the enthusiasm which is already being shown for the competition I am confident we can deliver that.”

It was back on February 20, 1880 that the committee of Ilkley Lawn Tennis Club met for the first time. One of the first clubs of its kind in the county, back then there were just half a dozen courts and the only real facilities were housed in a small green hut. Sixty families were invited to join the new club, but its ambitions were clear from the start. Five years later, Ilkley held its first Open Tournament which continued throughout the 20th century, except during the war years.

By the end of the 1940s a group of dedicated members were determined to revive the facilities, building a brand new clubhouse and actively recruiting new blood. Squash courts were added in the 1960s and over subsequent years, the club has expanded its indoor courts and fitness centre.

“Ilkley has long had a summer grass courts tournament, which has tended to attract players ranked from 500 to 2,000 in the world. That’s been good for the club, but the Aegon Trophy will put it on a whole new level. We will be seeing players ranked 50 to 200, players who will appear at Wimbledon and that’s good for spectators and it’s good for us.”

Stretching over eight days, the Aegon Trophy will feature more than 100 matches and will be the highest ranking competition to be played in Yorkshire. Back out on the courts, Richard Lord has just finished mowing the courts which will take centre stage come June.

“We don’t have a roof like Wimbledon, but we do have new covers which means that if it does rain then at least we will be able to get them back in use quickly. If all else fails then we will have to transfer matches to the indoor courts. No-one wants that to happen, but at least we have the option.”

The Ilkley Aegon Trophy, June 13 to 21. To book tickets call 0844-5816903 or log onto www.theticketfactory.com

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