Universities Mixed 2017: Liverpool At Last
30/01/17: After three successive semi-final defeats - some by agonisingly close margins - the Liverpool University pair of Aroop Bhattacharya and Alice Brett finally got their names on the trophy after a memorable day's Fives in the 2017 Universities Mixed tournament at Eton on Sunday.
This tournament is now in its seventh year and 2017 saw a record 13 pairs from seven different universities taking part, with players from Oxford, Cambridge, London, Surrey, Durham, Nottingham and Liverpool all in action. There was also a nice range of Fives backgrounds represented with some players who have taken the game up at university and others who learned their Fives at Westminster, Shrewsbury, St.Olave's, Berkhamsted, Eton, Emanuel, Highgate, Westway, Lancing, RGS High Wycombe and QEB all on court.
Last year's tournament was dominated from start to finish by James Piggot and Izzy Watts of Oxford, but this year was a much tighter affair, with as many as six or seven pairs realistically fancying their chances at the start of the day. The morning group stages were mainly a sorting out exercise to see how the main pairs positioned themselves for the afternoon knockout stages, with the main casualties being the Cambridge second and third pairs, beaten to qualifying slots by Oxford 3 (Noah Caplin and the impressive Nina Ludekens, playing her first competitive Fives) and Nottingham (Olavian Emily O'Malley and Berkhamstedian Chris Bird) respectively.
In the quarter-finals Nottingham and Oxford 3 found the going rather tougher, losing to the Cambridge and Oxford first pairs. The other two quarter-finals were tense and exciting matches: the experienced Liverpool pair of Alice Brett and Aroop Bhattacharya got off to a good start against the Westminster/Shrewsbury London pair of Sahil Shah and Sarah Jackman but began to get more and more jittery as the finishing line beckoned, just withstanding a strong London fightback to win 15-13 and reach the semi-finals for the fourth year in a row. The other quarter-final was close from start to finish, Oxford 2 (Rosie Parr & Jeremy Steed) just unable to keep pace with Durham's Old Emanuel duo of Lucy Pugh and Tom McCahon, who won through 15-12.
At this point, injury began to play a part in the competition. London/Surrey's Erin Leatherbarrow suffered a painful dislocated kneecap during the course of the plate competition, with Liverpool team manager/coach/motivator and tournament medic Abhishek Bhattacharya coming to the rescue while an ambulance was called. Thankfully, with some help from Dr Abs and the summoned paramedics, Erin was soon back on her feet, albeit with a limp and a sore knee, and able to watch the rest of the day's play. Meanwhile the challenge of Cambridge 1's Esme O'Keeffe and Riki Houlden was being undermined by an ankle injury to Esme. Although able to continue playing, her movement was severely compromised, forcing Riki to have to cover more and more of the court on his own. With Riki clearly enjoying the freedom to play virtually a singles game at times, the semi-final against Durham became a fascinating battle and it was the Cambridge pair who came out on top, winning the deciding game 12-8.
If you thought that match was close, it was nothing compared to the other semi-final going on in the adjacent court. The Liverpool pair of Alice and Aroop had fallen at this stage of each of the three previous competitions, and were well aware that this was their last chance with Alice in her final year. They were up against the Oxford first string of OUEFC captains Hannah Pritchard and Will Ponsonby and it was the Oxford pair who had the upper hand initially, winning the first game 12-9. With nothing to lose, Liverpool roared back into contention in the second game, taking it to 6 to set up a decider. The final game was a classic of its kind, both pairs playing some excellent Fives but also making nervous errors as the match got closer to its conclusion. Seemingly inevitably, it went to 11-11 and then to 13-13; Oxford had a chance to return a gameball cut but the shot went long and Liverpool seized their opportunity, taking the crucial point to make it into the final at last, producing a guttural roar from the normally restrained Aroop and a squeal of excitement from the relieved Alice. It was tough on Will and Hannah, who had played so well and had looked like potential tournament winners all day, but it would have been a tough one to take for the Liverpool pair to have lost yet another semi-final by such a tiny margin.
The final was a fascinating tactical battle. As in their semi-final, the Cambridge pair were having to rely increasingly on Riki to chase down everything; Esme was able to cut and return and could play good shots when the ball was in her area but her ankle injury was making it difficult for her to move around the court. Riki is a tough player to get the ball past, however, despite having to cover a huge amount of ground all while recovering from his previous night's star turn as Widow Twanky* in the Cambridge Medsoc pantomime, and it took all of Aroop's skill and Alice's determination to keep the Liverpool pair's noses in front. Driven on by the tactical and motivational inspiration from Abhishek - Liverpool's Fives answer to Jurgen Klopp - Alice and Aroop got to 11-7 in both the first and second games. On both occasions, Cambridge pulled it back and threatened to take it to 11-11, but ultimately the Liverpool pair had enough in the tank to get over the line and claim the trophy.
Some Cambridge pride was restored by Sudhir Balaji & Susanna Xu, who won the plate competition after some tough games against the other Cambridge pair of Emma Vinen & Nathan Turnbull and the Oxford pairings of Tom Critchley & Colette Rocheteau and Rushab Badiani & Izzy Moriarty Whyte, with the inexperienced girls in particular improving hugely during the course of the day.
My thanks go to all those who organised pairs and came and played, to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the tournament and to Dr.Bhattacharya for his support and medical expertise.
* this may not strictly have been the part he was playing. But I like to think it was.
Cambridge 1 (E.O'Keeffe & R.Houlden) beat Nottingham (E.O'Malley & C.Bird) 15-5
Durham (L.Pugh & T.McCahon) beat Oxford 2 (R.Parr & J.Steed) 15-12
Liverpool (A.Brett & A.Bhattacharya) beat London (S.Jackman & S.Shah) 15-13
Oxford 1 (H.Pritchard & W.Ponsonby) beat Oxford 3 (N.Ludekens & N.Caplin) 15-8
Cambridge 1 beat Durham 2-1 (15-12, 8-12, 12-7)
Liverpool beat Oxford 1 2-1 (9-12, 12-6, 14-13)
Liverpool beat Cambridge 1 2-0 (12-10, 12-9)
Oxford 2 beat Oxford 3 15-8
London beat Nottingham 12-9
1. Cambridge 3 (S.Xu & S.Balaji)
=2. Cambridge 2 (E.Vinen & N.Turnbull)
=2. Oxford 4 (C.Rocheteau & T.Critchley)
=2. Oxford 5 (I.Moriarty Whyte & R.Badiani)
5. London/Surrey (E.Leatherbarrow & A.Abrahams)