Spring is upon us, the sap is rising and there's a whiff of ITF points is in the air. Yes, the European clay court season has started and the 'seniors' from West Hants LTC are ready to start their 2012 campaign. This year, 'senior' is the new 'veteran'.
Our first tournament is an ITF Grade 3 at Llafranc on the Costa Brava, which is a coastal region of northeast Spain in the province of Girona. Llafranc itself is a beautiful resort with 3 nearby golf courses, charming coves and coastal pathways and well worth a visit purely as a holiday destination.
Seven of us are travelling, including 6 players with two in each of the 55+, 60+ and 65+ age groups. The seventh member of our party had a double hip replacement last year so a week on clay is much too early in his recovery schedule. Flights are booked with Ryan Air from Bournemouth to Girona, where we will pick up the hire cars for travelling onwards to our hotel at Platja d'Aro , which is 10 miles from the tournament location.
With a baggage allowance of only 15kg it's always a problem deciding what to pack for these trips, especially at this time of year when the weather in Spain can be inclement. More of an issue is how many tennis supports to take, an important factor for seeing you through a tough week on clay. Careful consideration is given to ankle, knee and elbow and the fact that we have two of each doesn't help. I decide on two multi-purpose neoprene supports and hope that I don't get to play too many Spanish baseliners, which could also exacerbate an old tennis-elbow problem. Between us, we have all the vital limbs covered. Last item in the case is a copy of Brad Gilbert's 'Winning Ugly' in case I need some inspiration.
The flight from Bournemouth is uneventful and we arrive in Girona on time. The next hurdle is to register our arrival with the car hire company and then set upon a mystery tour to find the cars - they are never at the location where you've been directed. We all have another moan about the 'scam' being operated by car hire companies in Spain in that you pay for a full tank of fuel before leaving the depot and return empty - it's not easy using a full tank of diesel fuel in a week!
It's 15 miles from Girona Airport to our hotel. After unloading, checking in and unpacking we calibrate the SatNav and set off to try and find 'Club Tenis Llafranc'.
Eventually we arrive and as you can see from the photo it is not exactly in a densely populated area but that turns out to be a positive aspect of the tournament - local, rural, self-contained, no distractions and a real club atmosphere.
We visit the club house, order several 'con leches' and bump into some old friends from La Manga last December. Our schoolboy French is put to good use again - "bonjour", "ca va", "a bientot", "au revoir", "a demain", etc. We also meet up with the tournament referee Rafael Ruiz, who is no mean player himself. Rafa isn't playing during the week but will probably do his usual 'exhibition hit' with one of the better players. I wonder why he never asks any of us? I think I probably know.
Before leaving the club we check on the draws and times of play before heading back to the hotel.
Day 1 and we roll up at the Club ready for the start of the 'Individuales' competition, having taken several unfortunate detours on the way as our driver reckons he knows better than the SatNav. The action starts and two of our party are valiantly defeated - even Novak and Rafa have problems adjusting to certain types of clay, why shouldn't we! Never mind, there is always the Plate Competition, which can sometimes be tougher than the main draw itself.
Day 2 and start of the Men's 55 singles - my event. I am matched with a Spaniard recovering from a broken ankle. Even though the tennis was below average I came off court with a 'W' and having agreed to play with his wife in the 'Dobles Mixtos' event. The No 1 seed in my draw was given a tennis lesson by the unseeded French winner of last year's M50 event (one of the wonderful anomalies with the ITF points system - changing age groups).
Day 3 and the 'Dobles' competition starts, which can be a little hit and miss as the age groups are often combined depending on the number of pairs entered. In our case it was more miss than hit as our round-robin event contains an Australian and Polish scratch doubles pair who are strong on both wings, very fit and at least 10 years younger than us!
Day 4 delivers two finalists from our party - Men's Plate and Men's 55 singles. Despite valiant efforts at Men's and Mixed Doubles there is no further success.
Day 5, Finals Day, no wind or rain and conditions perfect. We end the action with a losing Men's 55 singles finalist and a winner of the Men's Plate singles competition. Not a bad result for the 'seniors' of West Hants LTC.
Sunday morning we check out of the Hotel, drive to the airport, return the hire cars and struggle to ascend the steps to board the Bournemouth flight, which was timely and uneventful.
The ITF Seniors calendar is comprehensive, varied and provides the opportunity for players of all abilities to play International tennis. Competition can be tough, conditions trying and the organisation surrounding some tournaments 'relaxed' to say the least. But ultimately it provides an opportunity to test yourself, take you out of your comfort zone, and see how good you really are. Rivalries are established, reputations built and friendships forged. Whoever coined the phrase "seniors tennis is the future" wasn't far wrong.
West Hants seniors' next European adventure is already beyond the planning stage - watch this space!