Snide comments and mis-matching kits – ‘little’ Suffolk have loved being the underdogs during their fairytale rise to the top level of county tennis

Suffolk's men's tennis team has been promoted to Group One of the Aegon County Cup.
Back: Matt Houg

Suffolk's men's tennis team has been promoted to Group One of the Aegon County Cup. Back: Matt Hough, Jeremy Cowley, Ben Smith, Matt Kirby. Middle: Ashley Watling, Ryan lambert, Ollie Sutton. Front: Myles Orton - Credit: Archant

If you pitched it as a sports film the director would reject it as being too far-fetched.

Suffolk’s men’s tennis side made history in Cromer last week by gaining their fifth promotion in seven years to reach the top tier of county competition.

It’s a true underdog story, a spirited group of self-employed coaches of the game continually upsetting the odds to beat opponents with world ranked stars, far bigger catchment areas and large funding that they can only dream of.

Inspirational captain Jeremy Cowley, 32, has been there for the entire journey, making his county debut at the age of 14, becoming skipper when they were in Division Six and leading them all the way to the top.

“It’s a ridiculous achievement really when you consider the sizes of some of the counties we have beaten along the way,” he says. “Yorkshire and the East of Scotland are huge, while Berkshire had two guys in the top 500 of the world rankings (including former Davis Cup player Jamie Delgado).

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“Three or four years ago we all started joking ‘I wonder if we could make it to Eastbourne? (where the Group One tournament is held each year)’. The further and further we got though the more we began to take it seriously and realise it was actually possible.

“I still can’t quite believe we’re in Group One. To put that into context, Andy and Jamie Murray represented Scotland at that level in 2009.”

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By contrast, Suffolk’s core squad – Cowley, Matt Hough, Ben Smith, Myles Orton, Ashley Watling, Matt Kirby and Ollie Sutton – includes just one professional (Orton ranked a modest 1012 in the world). The rest are self-employed tennis coaches or students who have to take time off work to play county week, Watling and Kirby paying for their own flights back from the USA where they are currently based (Watling a coach and Kirby a student in Tulsa, Oklahoma).

“We’ve done it because we have this phenomenal team spirit, hunger and passion,” said Cowley, whose side will face powerhouses Kent, Surrey, Lancashire and Hertfordshire, as well as fellow promoted outfit Derbyshire, next year.

“We get hardly any funding, just a little bit to cover the costs of a house for the week, some food and petrol, whereas other counties pay their players as much as £1,000 just to compete. They all turn up in new, matching kit every year, while we just wear our own stuff!

“We love being the underdogs. There was a little bit of a snide comment from one of the teams we beat last week when they said ‘you’ll get thrashed next year’. Well people have been saying that about us for years though. We can’t wait to go into Group One and try to prove people wrong again.

“We’ve got some good young players coming through – Ryan Lambert and Paul Midgley were good reserves this year – and everyone is going to be desperate to be in that squad next year. I may even have to drop myself.”

– Suffolk’s men’s side are looking for sponsors for next year’s tournament at Eastbourne. If you are interested, contact Jeremey Cowley at:


– The Aegon County Cup is made up of seven divisions – Groups 1 to 7.

– Each group is made up of six counties who all get together for one week a year to play each other in a group format, the top two teams promoted and the bottom two relegated.

– All matches are doubles, with each county made up of six pairs and two or three reserves.

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