From the centre of Bad Homburg, the shining gold dome of the Russian Orthodox church is a beacon guiding tennis fans to the Kurpark.
Among several large parks in the town, it’s the Kurpark that hosts the WTA 250 known as the Bad Homburg Open presented by Engel & Volkers.
This version of the tournament may only be in its third year, but the site is of great historical importance to the sport. For it was here that tennis was introduced to central Europe by Scottish baronet Sir Robert Anstruther in 1876, a year before the first Wimbledon tournament.
Sir Robert and his friends played on a court with an hourglass shape design that was straightened out for Wimbledon.
They stayed only a short while in the German spa town but left the locals with a great knowledge of and love for the game.
At a tournament described as a “boutique tennis experience”, the modern centre court holds 3,500 people.
Remarkably for a main tour event, that is the only court of the three used for the tournament that charges admission. Matches on courts 1 and 2 are free to watch, as they are in the grounds of the public park that still functions as one all through the event.
As you walk past the little church and through the park there is a mini golf course and a putting range populated by ducks.
From high in the centre court, you can see locals having tennis lessons on clay courts. And there’s a great view of the original clubhouse which is only metres away and houses the players between their matches.
The crowd includes many people from the local community who stop and say hello to each other on their way to their seats.
There’s also a free fair held in the park, with mini-tennis and table tennis, concerts and a tennis-themed film festival.
In the first round of this year’s Bad Homburg Open, all the seeds made it through except the 7th, Elisabetta Cocciaretto, who lost to unseeded Kateřina Siniaková in straight sets.
There were three stand out matches in the first round, won by seeds Bianca Andreescu, Mayar Sherif and Iga Świątek.
Last year’s finalist and this year’s 5th seed, Bianca Andreescu, arrived in Bad Homburg after a straight sets loss to Viktória Hrunčáková in the second round of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and another loss in the first round of Berlin to Markéta Vondroušová.
While Andreescu may have been a bit short of match play, British wildcard Sonay Kartal played well above expectations in their first round match. She took it all the way to the Canadian ranked 227 places above her.
During a seesawing tussle of two hours and 27 minutes, Kartal clawed back from 1-4 to 5-5 in the final set. But after resisting a break of serve through several deuces and three match points, she finally hit a shot out to give Andreescu the win, 6-2 3-6 7-5.
Unfortunately for Andreescu she went out with a wrist injury in the next round against Rebeka Masarova, who won 94% of her first serve points. “I like playing on grass,” Masarova said, “although I don’t have that much experience.”
Fourth seed Mayar Sherif was given a scare by Germany’s No. 2 player and world 87, Anna-Lena Friedsam, who’s deft play around the net made it tough for her. But Sherif managed to win her first main draw grass match, 4-6 6-4 7-5.
After her win, she was asked if wildcard Friedsam had surprised her in playing so well. “Not at all,” she replied. “I’ve known her for a long time and know she’s been top 40.”
Later, at her press conference, Friedsam revealed she was recovering from the flu which had impacted on her preparation.
In her next round, Sherif found herself in another tight match, this time against Lucia Bronzetti. Sherif’s returning in the first set was exceptional and she won three out of five break points for a 6-1 result.
Bronzetti had converted only one of her 14 break points but took the second set when she broke several times in the tiebreak and claimed it 7-2. In the final set, Sherif saved two match points with aces but handed the match over with an error on Bronzetti’s third match point.
Unbelievably, Sherif had hit 80% of her first serves in and 100% of second serves – including 18 aces – but still lost. Bronzetti managed to win through the pin point accuracy of so many of her shots in last two sets.
After playing for almost three hours, Bronzetti stated the obvious to the appreciative crowd, “It was an amazing match. I gave everything.”
World No. 1 Iga Świątek had chosen Bad Homburg as her only warm-up event for Wimbledon.
In her first match, she took on the highest ranked German player, Tatjiana Maria, who made it all the way to the semis at Wimbledon last year.
Świątek started the match on fire, rushing through the first two games, just playing her own way.
Maria, cheered on by her daughter, suddenly lifted and led 6-5. When Świątek found the net with a couple of shots, Maria took the set 7-5. She had handled the windy conditions and served better.
The second set started the same way as the first, with Świątek heading off for a 2-0 lead. She stretched it to 5-1. Then Maria executed a drop shot so good that as Świątek raced to reach it, the ball bounced and curled away from her. Such was her sprint that she ran well past the net alongside the doubles alley as she pulled up. So the game went to Maria for 2-5. But Świątek got the set a game later. And the final set in a breezy 6-0.
Świątek won her next two matches against Jill Teichmann 3 & 1 – featuring Świątek’s sensational ‘tweener – and Blinkova 3 & 2, meaning she had earned her first semi final on grass.
She was pleased with her progress. “I think last year we worked a lot on getting back slices. This year we don’t have to do that much as I already had that in my game and we could just continue getting my game more solid on grass.
“I guess I’m more aggressive and I feel like I have more skills every year. I think my serve is working here well.”
Asked if the transition from clay to grass would be easier if the grass season was longer, she considered the idea and said, “Well, I would say that if we would make it longer that would mean that the clay court season would be shorter.”
Laughing, she added, “So I’m always going to be rooting for the clay court season to be as long as possible.
“But, for sure, it’s harder to learn on this surface, but you kind of have to deal with that. In tennis, the most important thing is adjusting and I think the best players out there, they manage to play well on all the surfaces.
“So I’m trying not to overthink the scheduling, just focus on myself and what I can do in that short period of time.”
Unfortunately, semi final day started with a tweet from Świątek that she had to withdraw from the tournament.
Her withdrawal did not impact on the event as might have happened elsewhere.
Of course, the fans, especially the few hundred Polish fans attending, would have been disappointed. But the crowds and the vibe of the event were unaffected. And the Polish fans still attended, just minus their flags and “Iga” signs.
The crowds had been just as philosophical when the last of the Germans went out on the third day with Friedsam and Vivian Heisen losing in the first round of the doubles.
With Świątek gone, Kateřina Siniaková took over as the main character in the tournament’s storyline.
She had played two sets of her quarter final against Liudmila Samsonova when play was suspended due to fading light at 7-5 4-6.
So the deciding set of that match started off semi final day at Bad Homburg. Siniaková won 6-2, meaning she’d be playing a semi later that day.
There followed an entertaining doubles semi, with Monica Niculescu / Eri Hozumi defeating Makoto Ninomiya / Tereza Mihalikova, 7-6(5) 4-6 8-10 in 130 minutes. The winners had saved nine of 13 break points against them.
(After that effort, the Niculescu / Hozumi team went down to Ingrid Gamarra Martins and Lidziya Marozava in the doubles final played over the next two days.)
Next, Siniaková returned to play Emma Navarro of the US in their semi. Navarro had an interesting tournament to this point. Her match against Alizé Cornet featured a game that went for 18 minutes and 37 seconds and seemed to have dozens of deuces. Then her quarter final ended abruptly when Rebeka Masarova retired after injuring her thigh in a fall during the second set.
Luckily for Siniaková, it was an easy win over Navarro, 6-2 6-2 in 66 minutes. “I was just trying to be aggressive, going for the shots, so I think that was the key.”
After her second win for the day, she was “tired…ready to go to the bed.”
The following day, rain delayed the start of her final against Lucia Bronzetti by an hour.
When the match finally began, Siniaková struggled with her serve but still led 4-1. Soon she took the set 6-2.
For the first three games of the second set, the players’ levels fluctuated and they broke each other. But, after 49 minutes of play, the rain returned.
Four hours after it first started, the match resumed with Siniaková 2-1. Both players had added heavy bandages to their right thighs though did not seem affected by injury.
The breaks of service continued to 3-2 before Siniaková stretched the set out to 5-2 but Bronzetti came back to force a tiebreak, losing it 5-7.
In winning 6-2 7-6(5), Siniaková demonstrated all the skills of the doubles champion she is – crisp volleys, unreachable lobs, precise passing and inspired improvisation.
Her serve caused her problems, perhaps a legacy of her wrist injury from Indian Wells, but her forehand often blazed to its destination.
The grass in Bad Homburg played especially fast all week. That suited Siniaková. “The court is faster because it’s a little bit humid. But I like the court. I like to play fast, I think it helps me…because I can play really tough and low.”
After losing the final in the inaugural year to Angelique Kerber, it was particularly gratifying for Siniaková to have won this year. “It was really stressful, really tough on my body, but I kept fighting and I finish this way.”
Asked why there’s a glut of Czech women playing so well in recent times, Siniaková couldn’t offer any insights.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s really nice to have so many players from this small country, but each of us has a totally different way and different journey to the top 100, top 50, top 10. So we don’t know the secret.”
With that, she quickly posed for the official photos holding the tournament’s bronze elephant trophy before rushing to catch her plane to London for Wimbledon.
“Of course, I’m really happy I won this title, but I’m not expecting to win Wimbledon. I will just try to be ready and show some good tennis.”