Tournament’s list of entries read like a Who’s Who of tennis
- Credit: Archant
The Torquay Indoor, staged on the courts at Torquay’s Palace Hotel, was a tournament of major significance in the British tennis calendar.
In the mid to late 1960s, when the tournament was at its peak, the list of entries read like a Who’s Who of the game and Torbay’s tennis fans were able to see stars of past, present and future on their own doorstep.
When I first reported on the tournament in the mid to late 1960s, competitors the women’s section included eight-times Grand Slam winner Ann Haydon Jones who had also competed in five world table tennis championships.
When she took on Billie Jean King in the Wimbledon singles final of July 1969 the nation came to a standstill to listen to live commentary.
According to Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, even the Fab Four paused their dubbing session of ‘Golden Slumbers’ to find a radio set and heard Haydon-Jones avenge her defeat of two years earlier 3-6, 6-3, 6-2!
A Wimbledon winner in waiting was also in Torquay. In a era when tennis was lit up by some of the brightest stars the women’s game has seen, Virginia Wade would go on to beat Billie Jean King to take the US Open title in 1968 and Evonne Goolagong in the final of the Australian Open four years later.
In 1977 an all-British Wimbledon women’s final looked to be on the cards with Paignton’s Sue Barker seemingly destined to meet Wade, who had disposed of Chris Evert en route.
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Barker’s semi-final opponent, Betty Stove of the Netherlands, had other ideas, however, and overcame the Briton, going on to lose to Wade in the final. Since Mike Sangster had reached his Wimbledon semi-final in 1961, the men’s game had had little to brag about.
Torquay tournament favourite Bobby Wilson did reach men’s singles quarter-finals at Wimbledon (four times), Forest Hills (twice) and Roland Garros while Mark Cox had special reason to enjoy competing at the Palace for it was here, in November 1958, that he won the first tournament of his career.
Other than reaching the US Open quarter-final in 1966, major tournament success eluded Cox throughout his career although he did capture some impressive scalps during including Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver at the Australian Open and Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors at the US Open.
Roger Taylor, the glamour boy of the game, brought the female fans out in force to the indoor courts but, like Cox, a Grand Slam title always proved beyond his reach.
Where the tennis roadshow went, Fleet Street’s finest were sure to follow and, armed with notebooks and expenses, they never missed a week in Torquay. The best known and most colourful of them was Laurie Pignon, the most resplendent of press room characters - cravat, pipe, buttonhole, huge glasses, waves of unruly grey hair and a booming voice.
‘Pignon often made grander entrances into tournament around the world than the competitors themselves’ observed The Times on his passing at the age of 93 in 2012.
The Daily Telegraph’s Lance Tingay, a respected tennis historian, was another Palace regular as was ‘The Voice of Wimbledon’ Dan Maskell.
Maskell, himself a formidable player and coach, was no stranger to the Palace Hotel. In 1940, as an RAF rehabilitation officer, he was stationed at the hotel which had been requisitioned by the government as a convalescent hospital and training facility.
Originally with 48 beds, it was quickly expanded to 250 and was renamed The RAF Hospital. Until it was bombed in October, 1942, many aircrew recovered and trained there.
There is absolutely no question as to the greatest tennis player ever to grace the Palace Hotel’s indoor court.
As his brilliant career was drawing to a close in the 1970s, Rod Laver - often cited as the best player of all time - took the show on the road with a series of exhibition matches involving Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzales and, I believe, Ken Rosewall.
On their route was the Palace Hotel and they produced an evening of tennis magic to thrill a sell-out crowd.
Tennis was not the only sport for which the Palace Hotel achieved national fame. Between the wars it’s challenging nine-hole golf course was home to the British Short Course Golf Championships while the swimming pool was once graced by Plymouth Olympian Sharon Davis as well as being used as a location by Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards during the filming of Melvyn Bragg’s screen adaptation of the story of Isadora Duncan.
With the entire hotel complex now bulldozed to dust, it is too easy to forget what an inspirational home it once was for our up-and-coming tennis stars and what an important role it once played in the British sporting calendar.
Hopefully, it won’t be forgotten and it would be appropriate if the Fragrance Group could find a way to incorporate the story of Arthur Roberts, his trio of champions and, indeed, the sporting significance of the former hotel into into the fabric of their stunning new development.