Photo: James Jordan PhotographyRichard Wheeler and James McCabe (GBR)
There cannot be many nationalities around the world more enthusiastic about beach games than the British or who love their tennis as much as they do, so the decision to stage the European Beach Tennis Championships in Brighton for a second consecutive year from August 8-10 is, in some ways, a logical one.
However, while they may need little excuse to pick up a bat or ball at the very first sight of sand, the British are little more than rookies when it comes to competitive beach tennis with just a couple of hundred people trying their hand at the sport compared to the thousands who actually play it regularly – many of them professionally – in countries like Italy and Brazil.
Consequently, don’t expect the British to be vying for the top honours among the 22 nations – two more than last year - competing at the Yellowave in Brighton, where the newly-crowned world champions Italy will be seeking to defend the three titles they won last year.
One can, however, expect a typically gutsy effort from the home nation, of the type that saw them narrowly avoid the wooden spoon at the world team championship at Moscow last month when Richard Wheeler, from Shropshire, was part of a three-strong team.
Returning to Brighton should revive some happy memories of last year when with the help of “a lot of British noise” Wheeler and James McCabe beat the Lithuanians in straight sets in their opening match in the men’s doubles.
Unfortunately, British players are at a major disadvantage in terms of facilities and location – not to mention weather. Wheeler was born and bred in Wolverhampton, which, as he says, “is about as far from a beach as you could possibly be in England”.
As a young boy he enjoyed nothing more than diving around on the beach on holiday in Devon so beach tennis seemed a natural fit for the tennis coach when he discovered it four years ago. And it was another two years before he took the sport up seriously. He would love to play more often, but at the moment there just isn’t the opportunity. The sport in the UK needs more courts, preferably permanent ones.
“The interest in beach tennis is small at the moment in the UK with a few pockets of people playing around the south coast and in the Midlands,” he says, “but everybody who does try the sport thinks it’s an absolutely fantastic sport, played in a very relaxed atmosphere.
“It’s certainly competitive when you get on court, but it’s just that the environment is different with the music and occasionally barbecues. You socialise with the opposition which maybe in the tennis world you wouldn’t do.”
The sport is a lot easier to play than tennis as a beginner. Some of the shots and techniques are quite different to what one might see at Wimbledon; for example, the volley is more of a pushed shot than a blocked one. Agility, reactions and a good touch, mixed with a bit of power, are the prerequisites, says Wheeler.
“I think it’s a sport that would work in the Olympics and people who’ve seen it are surprised how entertaining it is to watch,” he says. “I think it could work on television.”
With their volleying skills, Wheeler reckons Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski would be quite useful at it. But as someone who loves to dive around on the sand himself, he believes the tennis player most ideally suited of all would have been Boris Becker – “maybe he could still pull it off now”.