© Ella Ling

Tennis balls

Tennis's best-kept secret (Andy Murray likes it)

   

Next week, the grounds of the All England Club will be full of keen tennis fans vying for every possible vantage point during The Championships.  If they are not fortunate enough to get a seat, some will be forced to stand on their tip toes, peering over walls just to catch a glimpse of a ball being hit.  A few, if they are lucky, may even brush by a player as he makes his way through the crowds.

You wonder how many of these fans are aware of what is taking place this week. Tucked away at the Bank of England Sports Centre, just off Bank Lane in Roehampton, lies one of tennis’s hidden gems – Wimbledon qualifying. 

For four days each year, players battle it out in an attempt to gain a place in what is arguably the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament.  For those who have not gained direct acceptance by ranking or received a wild card, it is last chance saloon.

Wimbledon qualifying is so low-key that spectators could be forgiven for getting lost on their way.  The only indicator that this feast of tennis is taking place is an A4 sheet on the gates of the neighbouring National Tennis Centre which directs people towards the correct entrance down the road.

The entry field may contain a few names that even the most enthusiastic tennis fan may struggle to recognise, but it still makes for an interesting mix: the journeyman professionals, the home hopes and the up-and-coming youngsters.  The tennis can be dramatic and tense.

Considering that this is the only one of the four grand slam events which does not hold qualifying on the same site as the main tournament, it is remarkably well organised.  There is an information tent handing out free copies of the draw and order of play, food for sale and a computerised scoreboard keeping everyone updated with the latest results.

There is no shortage of action to follow with around 16 courts being used at the same time.  There is even a bit of football as some of the players use the vast open space to have a kickabout.  As the sun shines, it is a scene similar to those seen at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden during the Masters 1000 event in March.

There are plenty of autograph and photo opportunities as coaches and players mingle all around the grounds.  Great Britain Davis Cup captain Leon Smith and the unique Dustin Brown were two of those who were more than happy to mix with the crowd on Monday.

And where else could Andy Murray mill about watching tennis in relative peace?  With just a week to go before the world No 4 begins another attempt to claim that first grand slam title, he was in a relaxed mood as he wandered about watching some of his friends compete.

Wimbledon qualifying is a rare opportunity in tennis for the fans to feel like they are in the thick of the action.  And the great thing about it: it does not cost a penny to enter the grounds.