Under 21s 2017: Young Guns (Go For It)

13/02/17: The 2017 Under 21 tournament produced a thrilling day of Fives in arctic conditions at Eton yesterday. Highgate's Phoebe Bracken and Amira Reimer dominated the ladies competition once again to record their third successive victory at this level with a win over fellow Highgate School pair Marjolaine Briscoe and Viva Ruggi in the final. The men's tournament produced three classic matches in the knockout stages as Oxford University's Will Ponsonby and Tom Kirkby held their nerve to take the title.

Such has been the dominance of Phoebe Bracken & Amira Reimer at all age group levels in recent seasons, it was no surprise to see them walk away with the ladies title once again, the pace and accuracy of their shots and the quality of their footwork putting them in a different class to the rest of the field. The other pairs put in some good performances and had some excellent matches between themselves; the Highgate second string of Marjolaine Briscoe and Viva Ruggi proved themselves to be the second best pair in the competition with a strong semi-final win over Oxford University freshers Georgia Allen and Helen Pugh followed by a very creditable performance in the final. Georgia and Helen clinched third place, just holding off a late comeback from an inspired Francesca Turnbull and Old Salopian Sarah Jackman. Current Salopians Issy Wong and Adelaide Sillar won an exciting and close plate final against Old Stoic Anna Platz and Highgate's Gemma Smith-Bingham and Oxford novices Lauren Rowley and Colette Rocheteau gained a huge amount of valuable experience and improved greatly during the course of the day.

The group stages in the men's tournament went largely to form in the morning with the top four seeded pairs all making it through to the semi-finals. The group matches between those pairs were a foretaste of things to come, however, with young Olavians Tom Gallagher & Kieran Walton just holding off the challenge of Cambridge's Nathan Turnbull & Ben Merrett 15-13 to top Group A and Oxford's Sam Oppenheimer & Arthur Wellesley turning over the OUEFC captain/secretary combination of Will Ponsonby & Tom Kirkby 15-11 to come first in Group B.

The first semi-final completed a fine day for the Turnbull family, with Nathan matching younger sister Francesca's achievement by reaching the last four; Nathan and Ben Merrett's attempt to go one better than Francesca and her partner by making the final got off to a poor start as they went down 12-4 in the first game against Wellesley & Oppenheimer. Hopes were revived at the start of the second, though, as the High Wycombe/Westminster Cambridge pair hit a purple patch to move into a strong lead. Gradually, however, Oxford's Etonians reeled them back in and with the game set at 11-11, the momentum was firmly in the Dark Blue corner and Sam & Arthur went on to win 14-11 and book their place in the final.

The second semi-final was a remarkable match. Gallagher & Walton - the only school pair to make the last four - dominated the first game against Ponsonby & Kirkby and looked set to make it through into the final. The second game was much closer but the Olavians always seemed to have their noses just in front. The play of the two Toms in particular was highly impressive with Kieran and Will both offering good support, but also making some unforced errors, especially from the back court. The turning point was probably two successive rallies with Tom and then Kieran serving at match point up; the first was saved by a Ponsonby drive to the back left that would probably have gone out but hit the bricks for a winner and the second saved by a Kirkby scramble which hit the top of the buttress with just the right amount of pace to hit the nick over on the right hand side wall and roll along the floor. After that it was perhaps inevitable that the Oxford pair would take the first opportunity they got and they duly did so to level at 1-1. The third game produced the best Fives of the match and possibly of the whole tournament. All four players upped their level: Ponsonby improved the consistency of his back court play and produced some terrific cutting, Walton also tightened up his game and put in a strong top step volleying performance, Gallagher was quick to pounce on anything loose and rarely gave anything away while Kirkby produced possibly the best Fives he has played since winning the schools title back in 2015, perpetual motion in his retrieving and scrambling on top step and firing some trademark unreturnable winners into the buttress from the back court from almost down on his knees. Both pairs held up well under the pressure as the match got closer to its conclusion and it was no surprise to see the match go to 11-11 and then to 13-13, before finally the vagaries of the court came to the aid of the Oxford pair once again as a Kirkby mishit went up off a couple of agonising ledges beyond the reach of either Olavian to settle a wonderful match, one of those unusual encounters which produce a winning pair who actually won fewer points overall.

This set up an all-Oxford final and a repeat of the group match from earlier in the day. It is a strong indication of the strength of Oxford University's Fives at the moment that they were able to provide both finalists for this competition even in the absence of last year's champions James Piggot and James Cobb. The final was a fascinating match-up - all four players know each other's game well having all been at Eton together and now in the same University side. Will & Tom - captain and secretary of OUEFC this year - were obviously very keen to reassert their position in the pecking order after their morning defeat at the hands of Sam & Arthur with Tom having the extra incentive of banishing memories of defeats in the 2014 semi-final and 2015 final of this competition. Their experiences in the semi-final also seemed to be standing Will & Tom in good stead as the first game again was set and again went to sudden death, this time at 12-12. All in a day's work by now for Will & Tom as they won their third consecutive sudden death game to go one up. You can only ride your luck for so long, however, and Sam & Arthur came out strongly in the second game, determined to break the run. This they did in convincing style, refinding their dominant morning form with some fast aggressive attacking Fives to take the second 12-8 and level the match. The small remaining (and freezing) crowd were treated to a terrific decider with the high standards maintained and all four players giving it their all. All four can be proud of their performance but the difference in the third game was Tom Kirkby,the standout player of the tournament, who proved almost impossible to get the ball past at times. With Ponsonby still cutting well and solid in support, Oppenheimer & Wellesley were unable to impose their game on their opponents as they had in the second game and it was the "senior" Oxford pair who won the third game to claim the trophy.

The plate competitions were as keenly contested as ever, with the main honours going to Olavians Vish Shetty & Coby Plews, who overcame a rather delayed start due to Coby forgetting he was supposed to be playing (thank you to Mr Plews for the emergency taxi option!) to come through strongly at the end, defeating Highgate's Joshua Gordon & Dan Lioubimov-Antonov in a close match. Oxford's successful day was completed with a win in Plate B for Noah Caplin & Jacob Greenhouse over Royal Holloway's Will Seath & Ollie Avery.

My thanks go to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the tournament, to Richard Black for staying and watching in the freezing cold and presenting the trophies and to all those who helped arrange pairs and who came and played. The Under 21s is a great little tournament, allowing the top school and university pairs to play against each other, and will hopefully continue to be well-supported.

Ladies Tournament

Semi-Finals

P.Bracken & A.Reimer beat F.Turnbull & S.Jackman 2-0 (12-0, 12-0)

M.Briscoe & V.Ruggi beat G.Allen & H.Pugh 2-0 (12-8, 12-4)

Final

P.Bracken & A.Reimer beat M.Briscoe & V.Ruggi 2-0 (12-5, 12-3)

3rd/4th

G.Allen & H.Pugh beat F.Turnbull & S.Jackman 15-13

Plate

1. I.Wong & A.Sillar

2. A.Platz & G.Smith-Bingham

3. L.Rowley & C.Rocheteau

Men's Tournament

Semi-Finals

W.Ponsonby & T.Kirkby beat T.Gallagher & K.Walton 2-1 (6-12, 14-13, 14-13)

S.Oppenheimer & A.Wellesley beat N.Turnbull & B.Merrett 2-0 (12-4, 14-11)

Final

W.Ponsonby & T.Kirkby beat S.Oppenheimer & A.Wellesley 2-1 (13-12, 8-12, 12-8)

Plate A

V.Shetty & C.Plews beat D.Lioubimov-Antonov & C.Gordon 2-0 (12-11, 12-9)

Plate B

N.Caplin & J.Greenhouse beat W.Seath & O.Avery 15-1

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