"From Village Teams to Group 1 at Eastbourne - Cambridgeshire’s Men’s Team Incredible Journey
A strong Cambridgeshire Men’s team has developed over the last decade and risen to the top tier of county tennis. Many of the players started off playing club tennis within Cambridgeshire. All of the players over the past three years have come through junior county age groups for Cambridgeshire with one exception. Six recent players have gained tennis scholarships to universities in USA. Stephen Chittenden highlights their considerable recent achievements.
The Cambridgeshire men’s team came agonisingly close to a return to the top tier of county tennis at the first attempt in July 2019. In joint second place with East of Scotland, level on matches won, it came down to the head-to-head. The Scots had beaten Cambs on Thursday 5-4 so they gained promotion. Yet a measure of Cambs’ ability is they were the only team to beat division winners Surrey.
“It’s gutting to get so close, win four out of five, and still not go up.” said team captain Chris Little.
“The boys should be so proud, especially after coming back to win 5-4 after being 0-4 down on the first day.”
Without doubt this team now has the quality to play at the highest level. But it has been a long journey from Cromer 15 years ago, which saw the debut of the longest-serving member of the group that eventually made it to group one at Eastbourne in 2018. A 17 year-old Matt Taylor played his first ever county week in division six, then every year until 2018.
“It makes me feel old, says Taylor, who now coaches full-time in Cambridge,
“I was the longest serving member of the team, and I’ve seen it change. With the previous team, we would do ok, but never well enough to rise up.”
Things began to change with the arrival of three young players fresh from US college sport. Robin Goodman, Sam Fleck and Matthew Nicholson-Lewis all played for their American university teams. Matt Taylor recalls their impact,
“Those boys were playing competitively at US Universities, I was playing to a pretty good level, so it started to get a bit exciting.”
With strength in depth, the Cambridgeshire team began to turn heads,
“We won 18 matches straight,” says Taylor, “So we won four days (out of five) one year, then two years running when we didn’t lose, then three or four the next year. We thought, actually we’re a pretty decent team here.”
Sam Fleck played for Cornell University in upstate New York, and began to help lift the county up the divisions.
“It was one of my favourite weeks of the year so I never wanted to miss it, even since being in the States. We slowly meandered our way up through the groups.”
“It got more and more serious as we went up”, says Sam,
“First the more obscure counties, then you run into the serious counties like Essex, as you climb up the teams become deeper. But we always had three good pairs.”
The Cambridgeshire team failed on its first attempt to reach the top tier, dropping out of Group Two. But they bounced back immediately, and in 2017 had a second chance to get to the premier group.
Sam Fleck remembers it well, “We went into Group Two as underdogs and immediately lost to Derbyshire. But they were so strong we realised we could go up. To get that win was honestly one of the best days of my life, and of the guys’ lives. It was very emotional because it had been a ten year process to get there.”
The team’s ascent was masterminded by their captain Chris Little, “It felt fantastic getting the group to Eastbourne”, says Chris, “A real honour. They were a really strong tight-knit group of friends that also happened to be very good level tennis players.”
Promotion is something Chris will never forget, “My personal sense of achievement was fantastic. When we actually got the promotion up from group two, my wife will tell you it was actually quite emotional.”
One of the new generation of Cambs players is Tom Hands, who began at Fulbourn TC, played US college tennis, and is now making his way up the lower professional ranks, competing as far away as Israel.
“It was a phenomenal feeling coming up” says Tom, “Even more for the guys who brought the team up from the lower divisions.”
Tom believes the county’s relative minnow status brings them together,
“The team is so close, it means so much more when you get the result you’ve really been striving for.”
For Matt Taylor, Cambs are a band of brothers, “Whenever things get tough you can look down the courts and everyone plays for everyone. That’s why we got to Eastbourne. So on paper we’re not the strongest, but when it comes to crunch we can scrape out a result because of how much it means.”
Getting to the top tier was one thing, but actually playing there was another. While the lower group matches are played in genteel seaside clubs, men’s and women’s Group One matches are mostly played at Devonshire Park in Eastbourne, home to an ATP World Tour 250 and women’s WTA Premier Tournament.
Captain Chris Little believes his team took some time to get used to it,
“We’d heard stories about Eastbourne. I think maybe it did catch us off guard a little bit as I think we were a bit in awe for the first day at least.”
Cambs had a tough start to Eastbourne, losing 0-9 to eventual champions.
“It was a bit of a shock to the system losing to Suffolk on the first day,” says Chris, “But then they began to find their feet. The boys bounced back fantastically on the second day because we ran Essex really close and they finished a close second behind Suffolk.
Sam Fleck certainly noticed the difference, “It was amazing. We talked for a long time about climbing up. We loved playing together, but when you play Group One it feels like a different tournament. It felt bigger, grander, with physios and crowds which was a lot of fun to see.”
2019 saw a changing of the guard, with Sam Fleck and Matt Taylor unavailable. But Fleck has confidence in the younger players. “For us it was building on a few people...Rob and Matt (Nicholson-Lewis), Matt Taylor, Chris Little, then getting the younger guys to come through, like Tom Hands, Harry, Ben Clark, Matt Frost.”
Chad Richard and Charlie James made their first appearances this year, while 17 year old Harry Wendelken had joined in 2018 off the back of a semi-final appearance in Wimbledon junior doubles. Harry is based at a Swedish tennis academy and is among a select group of young players highlighted in national press features sponsored by Peugeot.
This year they came so close, but should be proud of forming a tight-knit group from a small county that now punches well above its weight. Its ethos is best described by Matt Taylor,
“Tennis is such an individual sport, so to play as a team when we’re always so close is a great experience. It’s definitely the most special week of the year. I’m confident if we can get back to Div One, we can hang around there” Next year, perhaps.
Stephen Chittenden July 2019