2016 Universities Tournament: Double Delight for the Dark Blues

24/10/16: The 2016 Jesters Universities Tournament took place at Eton on Saturday and was another hugely successful day of Fives. 26 pairs from 13 different universities took part - Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE, UCL, King's, Royal Holloway, Bristol, Nottingham, Swansea, Exeter, Durham and Surrey - with regular players rubbing shoulders with beginners, those having their annual outing and those playing for the first time since leaving school.

For those interested in such things, the breakdown of where the players had all learned their Fives shows strong representation from across the school Fives-playing world as well as a good smattering of players learning their Fives at university (imagine how many people that could be if more universities other than Oxford and Cambridge had their own courts?) and a healthy cross-code influence: Eton (9), Westminster (7), St.Olave's (5), Shrewsbury (4 - all female!), Cambridge University (4), Berkhamsted (3), Highgate (2), St.Bart's (2), City of London (2), Emanuel (2), Wolverhampton GS (2), Rugby Fives (2), Ipswich (1), Rossall (1), QEB (1), Charterhouse (1), Lancing (1), Aldenham (1), Oxford University (1), LSE (1).

The ladies tournament was a source of considerable pre-competition frustration this year with some late drop outs and non-availability of some potential pairs keeping the field down to 7. The absence of defending champions Durham was especially keenly felt, although this certainly opened the competition up. At one stage pairs were also lined up to come from Wales, Bristol, Loughborough and Reading, but the drop out rate was even higher than usual, leaving just two mixed pairs from Nottingham/Bristol and London/Swansea to take on the might of Oxbridge. 

Group A featured the top two Cambridge pairs plus the dangerous wild cards from Nottingham/Bristol. The experienced Old Olavian Emily O'Malley was paired up with Bristol fresher Louise Mathias, playing on an Eton Fives court for the first time but already a highly accomplished Rugby Fives player and serial champion in the four wall game. After an initial coaching session from Emily as the Cambridge pairs played each other and an "in at the deep end" introduction against the Cambridge first string of Elli Hullis and Esme O'Keeffe, Louise was ready to get to grips with the final group match - and de facto quarter-final - against Cambridge's second pair, captain Annie Cave and Pippa Ball. With Emily supplying some classy touches and an experienced guiding hand, Louise's power, reactions and speed around the court were too much for the Cambridge pair in the first game, with the scratch pair winning 12-4. A bit more accuracy and finesse from the Cambridge pair along with a wobble from their opponents gave them the second game 12-11, forcing the match into a third game decider, played up to 6. This was dominated from start to finish by Emily and Louise, who won it to 0 to book the second semi-final slot behind Elli and Esme.

The other group was dominated by Oxford 1 - dark blue captains past and present Rosie Parr and Hannah Pritchard - but the contest for the second qualifying place was fierce. The London/Swansea combination of Sarah Jackman and Melody Chan played well and fought hard but were unable to find a way past Oxford 2 (Old Cholmeleian Georgia Allen and newcomer Elena Zanchini) and Cambridge 3 (Rhonda Shiels and Susanna Xu), leaving those two pairs to fight it out in the final match of the group stages. With four pairs in the group rather than three, matches were being played over two games without a decider, meaning points difference would be crucial in the event of a draw. To their great frustration, the Oxford pair had a bit of a horror show at the start of the match as Rhonda and Susanna stormed to a 12-2 win. The Oxford pair recovered their composure well and controlled the second game to win 12-7 but the damage had been done and it was the Cambridge pair who went through. The Oxford girls then finished strongly, defeating Cambridge 2 to win the plate and finish fifth.

The semi-finals were both good contests but went comfortably to form, the Salopian duo of Parr and Pritchard having too much experience for O'Malley and Mathias and bringing an end to their exciting run, while Hullis and O'Keeffe confirmed their place in the Cambridge pecking order with a convincing win over Shiels and Xu.

Durham's 2015 win had come after three successive years of Oxford v Cambridge finals in this competition and 2016 therefore saw normal service being resumed. None of the four players involved had previously made a final, however, so if the university name on the trophy wasn't going to be new, the players' names would be. This was indeed turning to be an afternoon of firsts for Parr and Pritchard, who had not only made it into their first university final but were also undergoing the unusual experience of playing a full Sunday tournament without even a trace of a hangover and the results were remarkable (or not, depending on your point of view). Playing with pace, power and precision, the Oxford pair outcut their Cambridge opponents, hustling them into errors and controlling the final from start to finish, winning 12-6, 12-7 to take the trophy and lay down an early season Varsity match marker. They also became the first Oxford winners since Izzy Watts and Alice Walker back in 2013.

The men's tournament, meanwhile, was also moving towards an Oxford v Cambridge conclusion but without quite the same sense of inevitability present in the ladies competition. The late withdrawal due to illness of LSE's Samson Yick was a disappointment, not least to his partner Ismail Salim, who was hoping to go one better than last year's runners-up placing, but there were still plenty of non-Oxbridge threats in the draw, with Imperial, UCL and Durham all entering strong pairs. 

The group stages went pretty much to form, with Oxford 1, Cambridge 1 and Imperial 1 all winning their groups without undue difficulty. Group C turned out to be the toughest pool, with Matt Lewin and Will Capstick of UCL in inspired form defeating Oxford 2 15-13 and Imperial 2 15-12 to clinch top spot. Oxford 2's Will Ponsonby and Sacha Mehta did manage to beat the tricky Imperial 2 pair of Kotka Lim and Sahil Shah to qualify for the last eight but their "reward" for coming second was a quarter-final against the Oxford first string of James Piggot and Tom Kirkby and despite a much improved showing, Will and Sacha were unable to make it through into the semis. The Oxford first and second pairs were joined in the quarters by Barnaby Harrison and Arthur Wellesley (Oxford 3) and Sam Oppenheimer and Flinn Andreae (Oxford 4) - impressive numbers from the Oxford club, especially when you consider that James Cobb of last year's winning pair was unavailable due to injury. It was Harrison & Wellesley who produced the shock of the last eight, the young Etonians coming from behind to steal their match 15-14 against the more experienced and much fancied Imperial pair of Darshan Patel and Chris Self. The Oxford fourth pair also put in a fine performance, leading 10-9 at one stage against Cambridge 1 (Riki Houlden and Sudhir Balaji) before going down 15-10. The Durham pair of Ipswichian Sam Christopher and Emanuel Tom McCahon had qualified well in the morning behind Kirkby and Piggot, seeing off the tough challenge of LSE's Ismail Salim and Jivan Navani in the process and they then put in a majestic display in the last of the quarter-finals, seeing off UCL 1 15-5 in emphatic style as Lewin and Capstick were unable to refind their morning form.

The early start from Durham and a long day's Fives then seemed to catch up with Sam and Tom as their excellent run hit the buffers in the semi-final against Cambridge 1, Riki Houlden's speed and shotmaking - with some fine support from this year's Cambridge captain Balaji - taking the Cambridge pair into the final 12-6, 12-4. The other semi-final was an all-Etonian, all-Oxford affair and although Harrison and Wellesley again played well, especially in the first game, Piggot and Kirkby ultimately had too much class and they won 12-10, 12-3 to set up the second Oxford v Cambridge final of the day.

As always with these tournaments, it is a shame that more people aren't still around to watch the final, but those who were there were treated to a terrific spectacle. Piggot, Kirkby and Houlden have all experienced these kind of matches before and have all won big finals already in their careers. For Sudhir Balaji, this was a new experience and this showed a little in the first game as he couldn't quite keep up with the angles and volleying of Piggot and the speed and relentless pressure exerted by Kirkby; with Houlden powerless to stop them, the Oxford pair raced to a 12-5 win. To his great credit, however, Sudhir stepped up his game in the second and began to look much more at home at this level. Houlden, too, was beginning to find his range and exert some pressure of his own on the Oxford pair, forcing the game to 10-10. Just as the window of opportunity opened for the Cambridge pair, however, so it closed as Piggot and Kirkby did what good pairs do, and produced their best Fives when it mattered most. The Cambridge pair didn't have the answers but deserve great credit for a fine performance, while the winning pair take the trophy back to Oxford for the second successive year (actually it never left Oxford, being still in the possession of J.Cobb esq) thanks to a high quality performance and a well-deserved victory.

The Plate competition was as fiercely contested as ever, despite the withdrawal at lunchtime due to general feebleness of the LSE and UCL contingents. Metropolitan softies, indeed. The London flag was instead flown by the Imperial 2 Old Westminster pair of Shah and Lim, who saw off the strong challenges of Imperial/King's Brian Wang and Alex Tansey and Oxford 6 (Jeremy Steed and Jacob Greenhouse) as well as the valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to win a game of Surrey/Bristol (Alex Abrahams and Robert Pye) to reach the final. The battle to find their opponents was just about the closest contest of the day - Cambridge/Royal Holloway (the Rossall/St.Bart's combo of Philip Wilkinson and Will Seath) fought hard but brought up the rear behind a three way tie between Oxford 5 (Tuppy Morrissey/Rushab Badiani), Cambridge 2 (Nic Walker/Ewan Day-Collins) and Exeter (John Price/Will Roen-Tate). With Exeter and Oxford also tied on points difference, it was the winner of the head to head match who went through, giving Exeter a shot at Plate A glory. In the end Imperial were too strong for the Wolverhampton/Berkhamsted Exteter pair, but a top ten finish was a fine end to their day and reward for one of the longest journeys to get to Eton.

My thanks go to all of those who made the effort to travel to Eton and who played so splendidly and in such a sportsmanlike way all day: the atmosphere was congenial and friendly all day with not even a hint of a dispute of any kind anywhere - a tribute to the spirit of Fives and also entirely appropriate for a competition so generously sponsored by the Jesters, without whose assistance in providing travel refunds the tournament would be a much smaller and lesser event. My thanks also go to Mike Hughes and everyone at Eton for hosting the tournament.

 

Results

 

Ladies Competition

 

Semi-Finals:

Oxford 1 (R.Parr & H.Pritchard) beat Nottingham/Bristol (E.O'Malley & L.Mathias) 2-0 (12-2, 12-4)

Cambridge 1 (E.Hulllis & E.O'Keeffe) beat Cambridge 3 (R.Shiels & S.Xu) 2-0 (12-6, 12-2)

 

Final:

Oxford 1 beat Cambridge 1 2-0 (12-6, 12-7)

 

Plate:

1. Oxford 2 (G.Allen & E.Zanchini)

2. Cambridge 2 (P.Ball & A.Cave)

3. London/Swansea (S.Jackman & M.Chan)

 

Men's Competition

 

Quarter-Finals:

Oxford 1 (J.Piggot & T.Kirkby) beat Oxford 2 (W.Ponsonby & S.Mehta) 15-9

Oxford 3 (B.Harrison & A.Wellesley) beat Imperial 1 (D.Patel & C.Self) 15-14

Durham (S.Christopher & T.McCahon) beat UCL 1 (M.Lewin & W.Capstick) 15-5

Cambridge 1 (R.Houlden & S.Balaji) beat Oxford 4 (S.Oppenheimer & F.Andreae) 15-10

 

Semi-Finals:

Oxford 1 beat Oxford 3 2-0 (12-10, 12-3)

Cambridge 1 beat Durham 2-0 (12-6, 12-4)

 

Final:

Oxford 1 beat Cambridge 1 2-0 (12-5, 13-11)

 

Plate:

 

Group A

1. Exeter (J.Price & W.Roen-Tate)

2. Oxford 5 (T.Morrissey & R.Badiani)

3. Cambridge 2 (N.Walker & E.Day-Collins)

4. Cambridge/Royal Holloway (P.Wilkinson & W.Seath)

 

Group B

1. Imperial 2 (S.Shah & K.Lim)

2. Oxford 6 (J.Greenhouse & J.Steed)

3. Imperial/King's (B.Wang & A.Tansey)

4. Surrey/Bristol (A.Abraham & R.Pye)

 

Final:

Imperial 2 beat Exeter 12-7

 

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