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Wednesday, 28 June 2017 11:34 AM BST
Djokovic falls for laid-back Eastbourne vibes
What is it about Eastbourne, on the Sussex coast, that lures so many of the game's top players every year as they fine-tune their games for Wimbledon? READ MORE

Glance down the list of destinations Novak Djokovic has visited this season and one jumps off the page. The world No.4 has touched down in Doha, Melbourne, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, Paris… and Eastbourne.

Not often does the East Sussex seaside town sit alongside such iconic cities, but when it comes to laid-back, intimate grass-court facilities Eastbourne ticks the box.

Enjoying the moment...

A post shared by Novak Djokovic (@djokernole) on

It was a need for matches and a search for consistency to his game that ultimately persuaded Djokovic to add the Aegon International to his calendar but, by his own admission, since arriving last Saturday the Serb has been pleasantly surprised by the so-called English Riviera.

“For me it's great to visit a new place, be part of a new event,” said the 12-time Grand Slam champion, who has posted photos of himself paddling in Eastbourne’s rock pools and on top of the nearby cliffs. 

“I don't get to experience that too often. It's a small town, but being part of the combined event, there is a lot of matches, a lot of people coming out to watch and support the players.”

With an ATP 250 and a WTA Premier draw on offer - the men’s event returns to Sussex this year after a two-year residence in Nottingham - Tuesday’s order of play offered fans a whopping 29 matches across six match courts.

Djokovic, Richard Gasquet, women’s world No.1 Angelique Kerber, British No.1 Jo Konta, French Open runner-up Simona Halep and former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki could all be found on Devonshire Park’s order of play on Tuesday. So what brings them here?

“The weather is nice. The sea, it was nice. The club is big, good practice courts,” explained second seed Gael Monfils, another first-timer in Eastbourne. 

The quality of the grass courts and the proximity of the players to the fans, when on court, have always been popular elements of the historic venue, which was built in the late 1800s and has been hosting tennis ever since. 

A row of three practice courts just a few yards from Centre are jam-packed all day, normally with four players to a court and with just flimsy netting separating autograph hunters and the world’s best.

Eastbourne’s relaxed atmosphere and an opportunity for players to escape the confines of hotel rooms between matches is another plus for the touring pros. The official player accommodation - the five-star Grand Hotel - is a three-minute walk from the courts and overlooks the English Channel and beach.

As well as Djokovic’s sightseeing excursions, the Pliskova sisters, recent Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko and Kerber have all been spotted on the promenade.

The players just walk around there, you can walk around the courts, people can watch you practise and it's all right there, it's not so spread out

- Martina Navratilova

“My memories are when I was playing my two finals.” said Kerber, who finished runner-up in 2012 and 2014. “It was full on Centre Court, and I remember the fans were really great here. They watch us during practice, and they’re really close to us. I think this is good for us, and good for the fans.”

Martina Navratilova enjoyed the place so much she collected a record 11 singles titles between 1978 and 1993, and was so popular with the locals she was given the freedom of the town in 2005.

"The players just walk around there, you can walk around the courts, people can watch you practise and it's all right there, it's not so spread out,” Navratilova said at the time. “The players can interact with the fans and the kids. That’s how it should be.”

For some, of course, there’s no place like home. Heather Watson talked about the volume of support she enjoyed during her win over defending champion Dominika Cibulkova on Monday, and for hometown hero Jo Konta there’s nothing better than her mum’s cooking and valuable family time.

“I enjoy being at home,” said the 26-year-old, whose parents live in Eastbourne. “Mum and dad have been cooking for me… chicken stew, which is really nice.”

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