Grass heaven: Djokovic, Del Potro, Ferrer at The Boodles
Djokovic, Monfils, Del Potro and Verdasco head the bill at the non-tour grass-court tournament at Stoke Park
In the tiny grass window between the French Open and Wimbledon, one non-tour event always draws the top talent – The Boodles boasts 12 who have all reach the top 12.
June, the laid-back month that opens England’s summer to the world, starts with tennis -Queen’s -and ends with tennis -Wimbledon -and takes in the most beautiful countryside in southern England on the way: Ascot, Marlow, Henley.
Yet squeezed within this high-profile calendar are some small gems that satisfy the hunger of tennis fans during this all-to-short grass season.
These events focus on the pristine lawns of select clubs -rare pockets of grass that are craved by players heading for Wimbledon.
There is the old-fashioned seaside ATP stop-over at Eastbourne and the round-robin exclusivity of Hurlingham, but the one that has drawn the most exclusive participants is buried within one of the most perfect settings around.
The Boodles is celebrating its 10th anniversary at the stunning 350-acre Stoke Park in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Year by year, it has attracted the cream of the men’s tour, drawn to its expansive grounds just 20 miles from the All England Club.
There is money here, for sure. Boodles itself is renowned for its classy jewellery and other sponsors include Jaguar and Pommery champagne: The brands say it all. But there is amongst its visitors an appreciation for fine tennis too, and a day’s play can be bought by the public for just £38.
It’s a small price to pay for a cast list that this year includes Richard Gasquet, David Ferrer, Gael Monfils, Fernando Verdasco and a pair of Tommys returning from injury: Haas and Robredo.
These two in particular are a sight for sore eyes, and they played one another on the opening day: pitch perfect in style and picture perfect in the afternoon sun.
On their way are even bigger attractions. Former No4, Juan Martin Del Potro, arrives for Day Two while the man destined, it seems, to take the No1 ranking, Novak Djokovic, will arrive for day three. This will be his sixth year in a row at Stoke Park and this time, he is the man everyone wants to see.
Since the start of the year, Djokovic had won 41 consecutive matches before losing the semi-final at Roland Garros.
With seven straight titles and a Grand Slam semi in the tank, his body demanded a rest and time to repair a sore knee, and he withdrew from Queen’s last week. It means, therefore, that his step onto the Stoke Park turf will be his first on grass since he lost in the Wimbledon semi-finals last year.
But who has impressed thus far on the string of immaculate grass courts that host this peaceful, informal five-day competition?
First up were world No13 Gasquet -fresh from his first quarter-final at his home Slam in Paris and fast regaining his highest ranking from almost three years ago -against countryman Monfils -currently at a career-high of No8. Their match was decided in a champions’ tie-break, the first to 10 points being Gasquet.
But almost as much was their volleyball-style warm-up routine on the practice courts.
Next came Haas and Robredo. Both were returning from injury and both play an attractive all-court game that boasts the most elegant of shots, the single-handed backhand. It may have been only the third game Haas had played since hip and elbow surgery 16 months ago but he came back from a break of serve down to win in 7-6 6-3.
Finally came David Nalbandian, appearing in London and on grass for the first time in three years at Queen’s last week. He talked after his Champion’s tiebreak victory over Troicki of his affection for the intimate club-like atmosphere of this centre court that had brought him back to Stoke Park more than any other player.
It is early days in the Argentine’s return to the tour but he is hoping for much more success. A Nalbandian-starved British public will be hoping for the same.