2016 Under 25s: The Next Generation
26/09/16: A slightly smaller field than usual gathered at Eton yesterday to contest the 2016 Under 25 tournament. Although there were plenty of potential entrants not there, the pairs that did make it produced an exciting and high quality tournament.
The Ladies competition was won for the third year in succession by Highgate School pair Phoebe Bracken and Amira Reimer, who dominated the round robin tournament unchallenged. There were one or two players who were unable to make it to this year's tournament who might have given them a harder game, but Phoebe and Amira are an outstanding pair and continue to rack up title after title across all age groups.
One of the pleasing aspects of the day was the variety of Fives backgrounds of the participants. Even though the entry was not huge - 16 pairs in total - there were players who had learned their Fives at Eton, St.Olave's, Westminster, Shrewsbury, Aldenham, Wolverhampton, Highgate, Westway, Cambridge University, KES, Stowe, Charterhouse and RGS High Wycombe - an excellent spread.
The men's tournament started with two large groups fighting it out to make the afternoon knockout stages. Group A was dominated by last year's winner Riki Houlden and his new partner, Olavian schoolboy Tom Gallagher, and the scratch pairing of Tom Kirkby and Carl Rennie. Their match to decide who topped the group was a gripping encounter, with Houlden and Gallagher having to recover from a 1-7 deficit to win 12-10. Three pairs were pushing for qualification from Group B: new Eton assistant coach Sam Welti and this year's Eton number one Hector Hardman hit the ground running with some fast, aggressive Fives and went unbeaten through the group stages. Hot on their heels were Guy Williams and Andrew Rennie, with the last minute pairing of Highgate's James Hopkins and Westway coach Darren Doherty unlucky to miss out.
A plate tournament was set up for the afternoon, with a couple of injury withdrawals and a bit of pair shuffling producing an excellent competition, won by Cambridge University's Nathan Turnbull and his Varsity match partner from earlier in the year Anthony Kane, who, having survived a semi-final scare against Stephen Thatcher and Alex Tomlinson, produced a clinical display to defeat the bare-handed Doherty and Chris Wheeler in the final. Thatcher and Tomlinson made up for their semi-final disappointment by beating Highgate's Bluston and Blackshaw to win Plate B.
Meanwhile the main tournament semi-finals were underway, with four well-matched pairs and no obvious favourite. The first semi-final was the archetypal "game of two halves" as Houlden & Gallagher blew Williams & Rennie away 12-1 in the first game, the Aldenhamian/Salopian pairing unable to gain any sort of foothold in the match and making far too many errors. The second game was completely different - Willilams & Rennie cut out the mistakes and matched their opponents blow for blow, taking the game to 10-10 and then making it to 14 first. It took a couple of nerveless game ball cuts from Houden & Gallagher followed by a couple of crunch returns to take the game 15-14 and avoid a third game. Waiting for them in the final were Welti & Hardman, who had continued their impressive run with a convincing win over Kirkby and the older Rennie, who were unable to find the form they had shown in their morning group game against Houlden & Gallagher.
Houlden & Gallagher had been the narrow pre-tournament bookies' favourites, but their second game semi-final wobble and the splendid Fives being played by Welti & Hardman meant that the final looked like a tough one to call. It was good to see two top schoolboy players stepping up to this level alongside two more experienced partners and both Tom and Hector played some terrific Fives, Tom showing how much he had learned from partnering James Toop to the finals of the London and Northern tournaments last year and Hector showing the movement and touch you would associate with a top rackets player and proving himself to be a worthy successor to the recent crop of top Etonian pairs.
Riki won the title last year alongside five times winner Andrew Joyce, but with Joyce now over 25 it was Riki's turn to take on the senior role in his pairing. The first game of the final was very tight until it reached 8-8, with Houlden perhaps not at his absolute best and Gallagher making one or two too many unforced errors to go with the fine shots he was also producing. Welti and Hardman were attacking hard, moving well and volleying as much as they could and were proving to be a match for their opponents. At 8-8, though, the greater experience and superior match play of Houlden and Gallagher came into play as they were able to raise their game when it mattered most and get to 12 first. With the second game in many ways a replica of the first - tight until around 7/8 all followed by a decisive push from Gallagher & Houlden - Riki and Tom went on to win the final 2-0 and deservedly claim a first title for Tom and a second for Riki.
The Under 25s is a terrific tournament - a chance for the next generation of top players to show what they are made of and also a great opportunity for those who aren't necessarily potential winners to come along and get a fantastic day of Fives against all sorts of different opponents. Hopefully next year will see a higher entry - if you're still eligible to play at this level, do please make the effort to come along and play.
My thanks go to all who entered, to Mike Hughes and Dave Mew for their support in bringing along players and to everyone at Eton for hosting us as well as ever.
Ladies Tournament (Round Robin)
1. P.Bracken & A.Reimer
2. M.Briscoe & V.Ruggi
3. B.Parlane & T.Netke
R.Houlden & T.Gallagher beat G.Williams & A.Rennie 12-1, 15-14
S.Welti & H.Hardman beat C.Rennie & T.Kirkby 12-4, 12-6
R.Houlden & T.Gallagher beat S.Welti & H.Hardman 12-8, 12-8
N.Turnbull & A.Kane beat S.Thatcher & A.Tomlinson 12-11, 12-1
D.Doherty & C.Wheeler beat J.Bluston & T.Blackshaw 15-8
N.Turnbull & A.Kane beat D.Doherty & C.Wheeler 12-0, 12-4
S.Thatcher & A.Tomlinson beat J.Bluston & T.Blackshaw 15-5