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Tennis and friendship at AEGON GB Pro-Seres Barnstaple

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: September 04, 2014

By David Powell

  • Aimee Gibson in action at the Tarka Tennis Centre in the AEGON GB Pro-Series Barnstaple. Picture: Mike Southon

  • Charlotte Pearce playing in the AEGON GB Pro-Series Barnstaple. Picture: Mike Southon

  • Britain's Laura Deigman at the AEGON GB Pro-Series Barnstaple. Picture: Mike Southon

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AUGUST was not a good month for friendship in sport.

Graeme Swann publicly questioned the batting and captaincy of England cricket skipper Alastair Cook, one of his closest pals. Cook's response was that of a man who felt betrayed.

Then Paul Scholes turned his frustration at a faltering Manchester United on his former team-mates, calling for sweeping changes and at least five top signings.

When golfer David Howell finished second at the Italian Open on Sunday he denied his buddy, Stephen Gallacher, the runner-up place he needed for automatic selection in Europe's Ryder Cup team.

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That was 24 hours after Eden Hazard had helped Chelsea to a 6-3 defeat of an Everton team containing two of his best mates, Romelu Lukaku and Samuel Eto'o.

On Monday lunchtime at the Tarka Tennis Centre, Aimee Gibson and Charlotte Pearce shared a table having each made a winning start to the qualifying stage of the AEGON GB Pro-Series Barnstaple tennis tournament.

They are best friends and so far so good. The draw had kept them apart and their hope was that, however far they go, they will not have to face each other.

It happened two months ago in a quarter-final and it was a strange and awkward experience. The tournament was in Frinton, Essex, where Gibson lives, and Pearce stayed in her house.

"We had dinner together, talked all evening, went to sleep, had breakfast together then Aimee drove me to the club," said Pearce.

Then, suddenly, they switched off. Before the match they didn't hit together, didn't even talk.

"You try and take it as someone you don't know for the hour or whatever you are on the court," said Pearce.

It probably wasn't even that long – Gibson won 6-1, 6-1. But at least they are still mates.

"We will always be friends, nothing will ever stop that", said Pearce.

They were just hoping it wouldn't happen again in Barnstaple.

"I said to Charlotte, 'Let's pray we don't play each other'," said Gibson.

As true friends should, they both want the best for each other and that means one not setting the other back at this crucial time.

The Barnstaple tournament is critical in their separate attempts to gain a world ranking.

Pearce, 20, from Weybridge in Surrey, had a 6-0, 6-1 first qualifying round victory over fellow Briton Nicola George, which put her within one match of accumulating sufficient points to make the world ranking ladder.

By Tuesday afternoon she could celebrate her precious ranking, having beaten Britain's Laura Deigman 6-2, 7-6.

Gibson, 23, defeated another Brit, Natalie Hepburn, 6-4, 6-1 to edge closer to a world ranking, although she would still need points from a subsequent tournament.

A second qualifying round win over another Brit, Danielle Konotoptseva, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 meant both friends reached the main draw where they continued to avoid each other, drawn in opposite halves.

Eight qualifiers joined 24 direct entries in the main draw of 32, which began yesterday.

Unlike the draw for football's Champions League last week, players from Russia and Ukraine were not kept apart.

Yuliya Beygeizimer is from Donetsk in Ukraine – or at least she was until the Russian threat forced her and her family to move.

"There is a war, we had to leave," said Beygeizimer, but her relationship with Russian players is unaffected. "They have nothing to do with this war."

While Russian players are not a problem for her, there is one Ukrainian she is glad not to see in Barnstaple – Olga Savchuk.

"She is one of my closest friends in tennis and unfortunately we keep playing each other," said Beygeizimer. "This year we have played three or four times. Every time we see the draw we say, 'It's another one'.

"I play doubles quite a lot with her and we did well this year and won a big tournament.

"You have to be competitive and, if it is your friend, it is very difficult."

In what might count as a nightmare scenario for Nigel Farage, Barnstaple is a melting pot of Europeans trying to earn at the expense of British folk this week.

As tournament director Richard Joyner goes down his list of main-draw players the first nine names have all arrived direct from the US Open, each representing a different European country.

From Sweden, Germany, Ukraine, France, Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Croatia and Latvia, players with top-250 rankings have come to North Devon via New York. Tara Moore, ranked 262, is Britain's top hope.

Women playing tennis for a living in Barnstaple. Who would have thought it 100 years ago? Back then a letter in the Journal attacked young men for playing the game in the town instead of joining the Army.

Seeking a repeat of 2008, when she came through qualifying to reach the semi-finals, is Lina Stanciute. It is the Lithuanian's "fourth or fifth" time in Barnstaple.

"I really like it here," she said. "It's cozy, it's small, the courts are nice and the facilities are nice."

Straight from the Big Apple to the small time, Beygelzimer likes the contrast. She has played in the main draw of all four grand slams and said: "I am not impressed any more by the big tournaments.

"It's more about how the tournament is organised than how big it is.

"There are some big tournaments that are uncomfortable because they are organised badly and there are others that are more cozy and feel like a family."

Like Barnstaple, where friends can be friends.

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