Harris’ Dream Summer On British Grass Continues At Eastbourne

Billy Harris (photo: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)

EASTBOURNE/WASHINGTON, June 27, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

Billy Harris spent the first few years of his professional career traveling around Europe in a transit van to save money while competing on the ITF World Tennis Tour. Now, as he continues to pile up wins during the British summer grass season, the 139th-ranked journeyman is showing the tennis world his frugality has paid off. Harris has become the toast of England.

On Thursday at the ATP 250 Rothesay International in Eastbourne, on the sunny but windy southeast coast of England, Harris became just the fifth British semifinalist in tournament history – and the first since Jack Draper in 2022.  He defeated No. 49 Flavio Cobolli of Italy, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-2, in two hours and 28 minutes, much to the delight of the partisan fans that filled Centre Court at Devonshire Park. It was his third career victory over a Top 50 player.

The 29-year-old Isle of Man native joined the select company of Greg Rusedski (1996-97, 1999, 2001-03), Tim Henman (1997), Kyle Edmund (2019) and Draper, who have reached the last four in Eastbourne.

Harris, now the British No. 5, continued his dream summer on grass that has seen him reach two ATP Challenger semifinals, at Surbiton and Nottingham; a quarterfinal at Queen’s Club, and now the last four at Eastbourne. He hit eight aces and crunched 34 overall winners against Cobolli; won 77 percent of his first serves, saved all three break points he faced, and outpointed his opponent 108-95. It all added up to his fifth tour-level win in six tries, and he’s 25-20 in all competitions this season.

“I want to thank the crowd for their amazing support. They helped get me through that last set,” Harris said in his on-court interview afterward. When he was asked about tackling the windy conditions that prevailed on Centre Court, Harris replied: “We used to play a lot in the wind, it’s obviously frustrating for everyone. Coming from the Isle of Man definitely helped me today.”

After splitting the first two sets – both decided by tiebreakers – after two-and-a-quarter hours and 28 games, Harris got the first break of serve in the match to go up 3-1 against Cobolli. There had only been five break points between the two combatants the entire match to that point. Soon, Harris consolidated the break with a fifth-shot forehand winner to extend his lead to 4-1.

Next, ahead 5-2, Harris gained a match point on Cobolli’s serve. The Italian saved it plus one more. Finally, on his third match-point opportunity, Harris ripped a backhand winner that capped a 12-shot rally and with it, the victory was his to savor. It was the fifth time this season that Harris has come back to win after losing the first set.

Harris was asked by the on-court interviewer to describe his secret to success in playing on grass, one that has rewarded him with a wild card into next week’s Wimbledon Championships main draw. He remarked: “I don’t know really; I haven’t got a secret. I’ve had three great weeks in a row. I just want to continue to win as much as I can. I’m loving it out here.”

On Friday, Harris will face 94th-ranked qualifier Max Purcell of Australia. The 26-year-old from Sydney bested No. 53 Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, 6-3, 7-6 (4), in an hour and 25 minutes on Court 1 for his ninth win of the season. He mastered the windy elements with a variety of shots that added up to victory.

Purcell, a 2021 Eastbourne semifinalist, has earned six of his seven tour-level wins on grass in Eastbourne. Against Kecmanovic, Purcell hit 22 winners to 11 unforced errors, converted both of his break-point chances and outpointed his opponent 67-58.

“I had to pull it all out today. I thank the kind wind gods for giving me these conditions today because they definitely helped me,” Purcell said in his on-court interview. “I hope I can get the same conditions tomorrow.” 

From lucky loser to last four: Vukic reaches first grass-court semifinal

Lucky loser Aleksander Vukic of Australia got his revenge on Japanese qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka. After losing in the final round of qualifying to the 102nd-ranked Nishioka on Sunday, the 81st-ranked Vukic got the last laugh on Thursday. He defeated Nishioka, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), in two hours and seven minutes on Court 1 to advance to his second career tour-level semifinal and first one on grass.

Vukic was pushed to the limit during the third set but finally prevailed on his second match point opportunity, after Nishioka netted a forehand return off a powerful serve out wide. The 28-year-old Vukic from Sydney struck 37 winners – including 12 aces – while winning 82 percent of his first-serve points. He was outpointed 92-90 by Nishioka. In the end, it didn’t matter. Vukic was the one doing all the celebrating.

On Friday, Vukic, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 48 last August after reaching his first tour-level final at Atlanta, will play World No. 13 and top seed Taylor Fritz of the United States. The two-time Eastbourne champion (2019, 2022) defeated 104th-ranked qualifier Shang Juncheng of China, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5), in an hour and 46 minutes on Centre Court to advance to his third semifinal at Eastbourne.

Fritz’s experience paid off as he put away his 29th win of the season on his first match point try after Shang hit a forehand wide left that halted a 15-shot rally. Although the American No. 2 was pushed by Shang, who hit 29 winners to 16 unforced errors, Fritz came away unscathed by playing the big points just a little bit better despite the windy conditions.

To his credit, Fritz fired 20 aces, won 93 percent of his first-serve points, hit 32 winners to only 11 unforced errors, and saved all four break points he faced from the 19-year-old Shang. He outpointed his opponent 86-76.

Afterward, in his on-court interview, Fritz praised Shang and also spoke about the challenge of competing in the windy weather. “He played really well. With the wind and everything, it was a very miserable match to play, honestly,” he said. “It’s tough to take too much from today. You’re never going to feel great hitting the ball as windy as it was. If I can serve as well as I served today — even in this wind — I’m pretty happy about that.”

Around Devonshire Park

No. 4 seeds Neal Skupski of Great Britain and Michael Venus of New Zealand advanced to their second straight grass-court final after winning the title at Queen’s Club last week. On Thursday, the British/Kiwi duo defeated No. 2 seeds Marcelo Arevalo-Gonzalez of El Salvador and Mate Pavic of Croatia, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 10-8, in one hour and 42 minutes on Court 2. The winners garnered 70 percent of their service points and outpointed their opponents 75-69.

Next, Skupski and Venus will face No. 3 seeds Matthew Ebden and John Peers of Australia, in the title match. The Aussies defeated Harri Heliovaara of Finland and Henry Patten of Great Britain, 6-7 (11), 7-6 (4), 10-5, in one hour and 55 minutes on Court 2. Ebden and Peers won 79 percent of their first-serve points and outpointed their opponents 95-84.

Thursday’s Eastbourne results

Friday’s Eastbourne order of play

By the numbers

Shang Juncheng of China, who lost his quarterfinal match to top seed Taylor Fritz, was denied in his attempt to become the second Chinese man to make a grass tour-level semifinal in the Open Era after Zhang Zhizhen achieved the feat in Halle last week.

“Quotable …”

“I love Eastbourne! I’ve done well here two times now. Qualifying was extra tough. I’ve put it together here [this week] right before Wimbledon. Eastbourne and Wimbledon are my favorite tournaments.”

Max Purcell of Australia, during his on-court interview, following his quarterfinal win over Miomir Kecmanovic on why he fares so well on grass.