Under 25s: Old Foes Combine and the Highgate Girls Dominate Again
18/09/17: There will be some familiar names engraved on the Under 25 trophies after this year's tournament as Riki Houlden won his third men's title in a row, this time in an Oxford/Cambridge pairing with James Piggot, while Phoebe Bracken won the ladies competition for the fourth consecutive year alongside Eve Smith-Bingham, herself a winner for the second time.
The main pre-tournament talking point in the men's competition - apart from Riki's Kevin Pietersen circa 2005 haircut - was the new pairing of Houlden and Piggot, frequent rivals in recent years in Varsity matches and in U21, U25 and University competitions. A new pairing always takes a bit of time to gel, of course, and both have a very distinctive style of play that the other will need to get used to, but it will be interesting to see if this is just a one-off or whether we will see them join forces again at some stage to challenge for higher honours.
There were plenty of strong pairs at Eton on Sunday who were very keen not to let the favourites have it all their own way. The field included last year's runners-up Sam Welti & Hector Hardman, a strong Aldenhamian/Salopian alliance in Andrew Rennie & Guy Williams, two of last year's schools' championships star players in Olavians Tom Gallagher & Kieran Walton, past and present Cambridge captains Sudhir Balaji & Nathan Turnbull, former Oxford captains Jack Flowers & Fergus Imrie, and dangerous dark horses in Old Westminsters Sahil Shah & Ben Merrett and Olavian (and adopted Olavian) Harry Ravi & Joey Prior. With players from Lancing, St.Bart's, Royal Holloway, North Oxford and Rossall also present, there was a good cross-section of the Fives world taking part.
The morning group stages were designed to rank the top eight pairs for the afternoon knockout phase. Welti & Hardman continued their good form from last year's competition, winning Group B ahead of Rennie & Williams, with Imrie & Flowers taking Oxbridge honours to finish third ahead of Turnbull & Balaji. Lancing pair Alex Abrahams & George Linfield were unlucky to miss out on qualification, and Philip Wilkinson & Jake Ryde made a good impression in some tough games for two much more inexperienced players.
Group A was a little less predictable: Houlden & Piggot duly won all of their matches to top the group, although they didn't have things all their own way. Gallagher & Walton got off to a poor start, losing 9-12 in their first game to Shah & Merrett and then following that up with a 10-12 defeat at the hands of the day's fast emerging surprise package of Harry Ravi & Joey Prior, who went on to claim the runners-up spot in the group ahead of Shah & Merrett in third and Gallagher & Walton down in fourth place. Will Seath & Ollie Avery - masterminds of the brand new Royal Holloway EFC - acquitted themselves well against strong opposition and picked up plenty of points, showing the great recent improvement in their game, even if they didn't manage to win any matches.
After a break for lunch, the quarter-finals got underway; Turnbull & Balaji were unable to make much of an impression on Houlden & Piggot and Rennie & Williams looked good in a convincing win over Shah & Merrett. Flowers & Imrie couldn't get things going again after their lunch break and went down rather tamely against the impressive Prior & Ravi. Gallagher & Walton, however, seemed to have refound their form after their morning travails, and had Welti & Hardman in all sorts of trouble at 13-9 up. The Olavian youngsters couldn't quite see it through, though, as Welti & Hardman clawed their way back in it - with a little bit of luck going their way as well - to win 15-13 and make it through to the last four.
Sam & Hector continued to surf the wave in the first game of their semi-final, taking it 12-4 against Harry & Joey. They were cruising in the second, as well, before their form dipped again, instilling renewed belief in the game of the Olavians, who took the game all the way to 12-12, even spurning a couple of half chances to take it to a decider, before Welti & Hardman clinched the final point much to their relief, to repeat Sam's win over Harry the last time they met in a semi-final, back in the 2012 national schools' championships.
The other followed a broadly similar pattern, with Houlden & Piggot winning the first game in a fairly regulation 12-6 against Rennie & Williams. The second game was much tighter, however, with Guy & Andrew putting Riki & James under severe pressure at times and getting their noses in front at 9-7. In the end, though, the greater consistency of Piggot & Houlden was enough to come through when it really mattered to take the game 12-9 and take their place in the final.
The final looked at first as if it might be something of a damp squib as Welti & Hardman looked a bit tired and flat-footed in the first game and were swept away 12-2 in double quick time. Their form had been up and down all day, however, and a switch was suddenly flicked at the start of the second game. Hardman began to slip into a fantastic cutting rhythm and Welti began to find some good returns and also started to impose his very Salopian attacking volleying game on Riki & James. Having been in full control and playing at their own pace in the first game, Houlden & Piggot suddenly looked rather passive as they tried to contain the Welti assault. Piggot began to struggle a little with his cuts and Houlden found himself a little rushed and consequently lacking his usual accuracy. Welti & Hardman deservedly won the second game to 7, setting up a fascinating decider. They started strongly once again for the first few points but it soon became apparent that they weren't quite able to hit the same heights as in the game before. Houlden & Piggot began to reassert their authority, cutting better and starting to produce the sharper fives themselves, with the trademark Piggot left-hand snaking out at high speed to ping a winner to the back right past a stranded opponent and Houlden showing his superior fitness to move around the court better than anyone else, getting into position early and causing problems for the other pair. Having weathered the storm, Riki & James took control of the match once again and ran out deserved 12-6 winners in the decider to clinch the title and leave Sam & Hector having to settle for the runners-up slot for the second year in a row.
This was Riki's third successive win in the competition - with three different partners - and a first for James, who can now add the U25 title to the U16, U18, U21, Universities and Universities Mixed titles already on his impressive Fives CV.
The Ladies competition - impeccably organised by Karen Hird - has been dominated in recent years by the girls from Highgate School. There was one small change this year, as the four finalists - while very familiar faces - are now all Old Cholmeleians. There was a welcome reappearance from Eve Smith-Bingham this year, who had won the tournament back in 2013, when she was only 14. With the co-winner of the last three tournaments Amira Reimer now in Canada, Eve paired up with the other defending champion Phoebe Bracken and they once again showed their class in defeating fellow Cholmeleians - and soon to be Oxford University students - Marjolaine Briscoe and Carolina Valensise in the final.
These two pairs play at an incredibly high level and were head and shoulders ahead of the other pairs in the competition, who were generally very well-matched and had some excellent games amongst themselves both in the morning group stage and the afternoon placing matches. Following the grand school tradition it was the Highgate U16 pair of Emma Willets and Mia Barry who came third, coming from a game down to defeat Susanna Xu & Francesca Turnbull in the 3rd/4th place game. Best of the rest were Old Salopians Erin Leatherbarrow and Sarah Jackman, who came in just ahead of ex-Oxford pair Alice Stables & Martha Samano and the other Highgate pair of Rachel Tabizel & Lakesha Ruddock.
My thanks got to Karen Hird for running the ladies tournament, to Richard Black for presenting the trophies and to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the tournament. A fine way to start the season!