Ilkley Tennis Club gets back in the big game again after taking Covid-enforced backseat

It is only six years ago that Daniil Medvedev – the man who recently ended Novak Djokovic’s 361-week reign as World No 1 – was playing the Ilkley Trophy.

Back then, Medvedev was ranked outside the top 100 in the world, desperately trying to find form to take into Wimbledon qualifiers the following week.

The Ilkley Trophy had become an annual pilgrimage for the Russian, as it had for scores of male and female players on the fringes of the grand slam tournaments, tennis’s equivalent of the breadline.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

To the people of Ilkley, from tournament organisers within the club to the fans who sat in the blue grandstands, that week in mid-June had become a mainstay of their own calendars, a sporting event that put the picturesque spa town on the map.

SEE YOU SOON: Spectators pictured during the Men’s Final at Ilkley Lawn Tennis & Squash Club June 2019 - the tournament returns again this summer. Picture: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Then the Covid pandemic struck, sport shut down, recreational habits changed, and Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club was suddenly prioritising the fight for its very existence, let alone the right to host a tournament on the ATP and ITF circuits.

“There were long periods where we were closed, mornings where we’d read the latest guidance and decide we can stay open and by afternoon they’d changed the wording and we’d have to close the place,” recalls Rik Smith, the 37-year-old long-time member elected to the role of chairman of the club last November. “That was incredibly disruptive and tough.

“We’ve got the club back to a stable position but we haven’t recovered yet back to pre-pandemic levels,” he says, adding that before Covid there were 2,400 members, now there are between 1,900 and 2,000.

“A lot of places have seen that with the length of time the pandemic went on for, there has really been habitual change in people’s routines.

THAT WAS THEN: Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, playing at Ilkley back in 2016. He is now world No 1. Picture: Daniel Smith/Getty Images

“A lot of people in their 30s, 40s, 50s invested in gym and bike equipment who had more disposable income, and they’re reluctant now to return to the club. People change the way they exercised as well.”

Routines also changed above their heads. The 2020 Ilkley Trophy was cancelled along with the majority of sport that summer due to the first lockdown. That was understandable. But when the Lawn Tennis Association decided to condense the pre-Wimbledon grass-court season into bubble tournaments in Nottingham in 2021, Ilkley feared their foothold on the tennis ladder would be cut from under them.

“I was conscious over that couple of years that the format they ran in 2021 where Nottingham hosted a larger event which was a combination of Ilkley, Manchester and Surbiton, would become the more sustainable, long-term solution for the LTA,” continues Smith.

“So from very early on last year it was about us ensuring they understood the importance of Ilkley as the northern tournament.

Ilkley's Rik Smith.

“We had a lot of conversations with the LTA over the last year to ensure that they were on board with it, and to understand our enthusiasm for hosting it again and our capabilities for doing so.

“When we first started having those conversations Covid restrictions were in place, because at the time eight/nine months ago there was potential that any tournament would have to take place within Covid restrictions, which would have presented a significant logistical challenge for us.

“So we made sure they were confident we could run it with those parameters around it. The likelihood is there will be very few, if any, Covid restrictions around the tournament when it comes back to us in June, and we’ll be back to similar to 2019 with how the tournament is run.”

After a two-year hiatus, the Ilkley Trophy is back from Sunday, June 12 to Sunday, June 19, a key staging post for the men and women preparing for Wimbledon qualifiers the following week. Ilkley will host the ATP 125 Challenger event for men and ITF WTT $100K for women on their six grass courts, five practice courts and, if the weather takes a turn, their five indoor courts.

BRING IT BACK: A general view of play during the Ilkley Trophy at Ilkley Lawn Tennis & Squash Club in June 2019. Picture: George Wood/Getty Images

“It was huge for us to get it back,” says Smith. “Absolutely massive. It had been quite a significant loss to us these past two years. The aim of that tournament each year is to generate income for the club and a revenue stream that allows us to reinvest into the tournament for the following year and the club itself.

“It raises the profile of the club, increasing awareness, getting people down and seeing the facility. It’s a great marketing opportunity for us, and therefore not having it means the club falls out of the limelight.”

Now back in the limelight, Smith is intent on keeping Ilkley there. A player at the club in his youth – “I remember it as a junior when it was just a wooden hut that I used to go to on a Friday night,” – Smith has been on the board for three years, initially as compliance director.

“I’ve been involved in the club for years, I think it’s because I was too outspoken for so long on things I thought should change, so rather than sitting on the sidelines commentating, I thought I’d get involved.

“I’ve seen quite the evolution of the place over the years and I’d like to now lead the next phase of that evolution.”

That starts with helping grow the membership to something like pre-pandemic levels.

“I think it will be more of an organic growth over the next couple of years but we are looking to do some development work over the coming years that will boost that membership,” he says.

“Refurbishment and extension to the existing gym facility which we need to do.

“We’re potentially looking at putting padel courts in over the next couple of years to diversify the racquets offering. Padel can prolong the careers of tennis and squash players because where they might not be able to get around a squash or tennis court they could play padel at a slower pace for a few years longer.”

There have been challenges, mainly a turnover of general managers and the sad news last month that the club’s respected groundsman Richard Lord had died suddenly.

“It was an incredible shock to everybody,” says Smith.

“With everything going on at the club and his knowledge there’s a huge void there.

“Thankfully we’ve managed to re-employ with Richard’s assistant, Will Rigg, and we’re working very closely with the All England Club, they’re providing support to us, as is STRI which is the Sports Turf Research Institute in Bingley who are the main advisors on grass surfaces across the UK and the world, and they’re on our doorstep. We’re working as well with the LTA.

“So we’ll be ready for June 12. So far we’re doing very well with tickets; we do attract a very good following.

“The Ilkley public support it as they do with any other sporting event, whether it’s cycling, rugby, tennis; Ilkley is a big sporting town. And we can draw on regional support as well.”

And who knows, the next Medvedev might just be on show. For tickets visit www.ilkleytrophy.co.uk