Paume Truths From Abroad
16/08/19: The second weekend in August means the World Cup of Paume Artignoscaise in the South of France and the regular team of Eton Fives players returned last weekend to take part for a third successive year.
Having seen off the twin threats of losing Ralph to the Girl Guides on the Eurostar and train delays on the TGV, some early acclimatisation was the order of the day, with a full day's practice in Artignosc on Wednesday allowing us to get reacquainted with hitting the tennis ball bare-handed, with the ledges and hazards of the church wall, with the 35 degree temperatures (only mad children and british paume players play in the midday Artignosc sun) and with the controversial absence this year of the post box affixed to the right hand wall of the church, helpfully removed during the course of the year by La Poste and replaced by a nice new shiny one down the road. More of which later...
Having refamiliarised ourselves with the Team HQ in Montmeyan and with the people, game and auberge in Artignosc, acquaintance was then renewed with our friends at the Grasse Pelotari club near the Cote d'Azur on Thursday. A handball tournament on their outdoor fronton gave the opportunity for the youngest member of Team GB to shine, 14 year old Tom Hoskins outperforming his older team-mates and the local challengers to reach the final before finally losing to local favourite Idrys Hassnaoui-Haeuw. A memorable meal in Cotignac on the way back to Montmeyan was followed the next day by the arrival of the final members of the squad in the shape of Nick and Michèle Shaw and their young nephew Sacha and a day spent walking, kayaking and eating ice-cream in nearby Quinson before heading back to Artignosc for the Friday night pre-tournament festivites.
Come the tournament itself, this year's theme was a European one, with the team t-shirts displaying family allegiances to England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Switzerland and even the EU. With over 52 pairs taking part and only the one court, the logistics are pretty complicated but the format of quickfire matches and the draw being divided up into segments worked well with everyone able to plan their day and sit back, relax and enjoy the play and the atmosphere. With Nick still recovering from a broken leg earlier in the year, last year's finalists were unable to try and go one better this time round and Seb's services were quickly snapped up by AIPA (Association Internationale de Paume Artignoscaise) President and former World Champion Olivier Bianchi, although Seb was required to go through an official "baptism" ceremony in the fountain to qualify as sufficiently Artignoscais before being allowed to take part. Nick was hobbling around on one leg with nephew Sacha doing the running, while Gareth & Tom Hoskins teamed up once again, this time representing Wales. Last year's women's champions Karen Hird & Charlotta Cooley decided to take their chances in the open competition partnering Ralph Morgan and Ian Mitchell respectively, while last year's runners-up Harriet Asquith and Mandie Barnes went for the integration option, teaming up with local players in the women's competition.
All of the British pairs performed well in the Saturday group stages, with more matches being won than lost, but the qualification standard for the Sunday knockout stages was particularly tough this year, with Nick & Sacha, Karen & Ralph and Ian & Charlie all finishing one win short. This left Gareth & Tom, who found themselves in a qualification play-off against a fancied and experienced local pair in Bruno Vacherand-Denand and Matthieu Fonmarty. The portents were not great, as Gareth & Tom had lost 7-1 to the group's top-seeded pair whereas Bruno & Matthieu had pushed them all the way to an 8-6 tie-break. The short first to 7 format worked to the Welsh pair's advantage, however, and with Tom picking up where he'd left off in Grasse with a couple of unreturnable early winners into the door frame, some solid left hand retrieving from Gareth and some mistakes from Bruno meant a shock 7-2 victory and a place in the knockout stages.
There was also a film crew from France 2 around on Saturday, putting together a short piece for the following day's 1 o'clock news, which featured a curious interview conducted in English and dubbed into French by "german tourists" Charlie Cooley and Caroline Herd (sic). CLICK HERE to check out the full story!
The post-box made a surprise reappearance towards the end of Saturday's play, as the missing yellow French version was replaced mid-match by a splendid old-fashioned red pillar box in the form of a full length fancy-dress costume with Seb inside - an irresistible target for those playing in the game in progress. The Saturday night dinner was held this year in the adjacent park with the band accompanying the pre-dinner apéritif and an impromptu game of cricket that was largely - but not entirely - ignored by the majority of the local contingent, no doubt already confused by the wrong colour post box.
Sunday was even hotter than Saturday, with the temperature up into the high 30s as the big beasts of the competition entered the fray. None come bigger than multiple world champions Fabien Aillaud & Mathias Constans, beaten in consecutive years by the British duo of Cooley & Shaw, but looking ominously sharp in one half of the draw right from the start. The Welsh challenge came to a 10-5 end at the hands of the 2017 runners-up in a match played with the human post box back in play before Seb & Olivier took to the court and showed their class straight away, winning two potentially tough matches against first Arthur Plauchud & Rémi Nigrel and then 2017 champions and crowd favourites Gaspard Doussière & Tom Valdman. Seb & Olivier won their semi-final comfortably before settling back to watch Fabien & Mathias take on 2018 champions Max Bodinar & Hugo Cincione in a titanic battle in the other semi, Fabien & Mathias flying out to an early lead and then just about withstanding a strong fightback to make it through.
The final looked like it would be another classic: could Seb make it a third win in three years against the six times champions and take the title for the first time or could Fabien & Mathias reclaim the crown after two fallow years? The start was unsurprisingly tight, with all four players producing some tremendous play and Fabien & Mathias keeping a point or two ahead. Suddenly, though, the elastic snapped as Fabien in particular began to reel off an almost perfect sequence of shots, showing anticipation, determination, a surprising turn of speed for a big man and real power and accuracy to leave Seb & Olivier powerless and frequently grasping at thin air. Before you knew it, it was match point and a comprehensive 21-9 victory for the former champions, meaning we'll have to wait at least one more year for a British winner of the open tournament.
There were no such problems in the women's competition, however, even without last year's winners playing together. As it happened, Mandie's partner Violaine was unavailable for Sunday's play and was replaced by Charlotta and they made it into the final where they found themselves up against Harry and Léa Doussière. Harry had been the outstanding player for large parts of the competition in her run to the final last year, and was determined to go one better this time. With Harry switching to play on the right this year to accommodate the left-handed Léa, the franco-british pair were ahead from the start, and although Charlotta & Mandie never made it easy for them, their victory was never really in doubt.
This was another memorable week, made possible thanks to our friends in Grasse and Artignosc and we very much hope that at least one or two of them will make it over to the UK during the course of the year to have a go at playing Eton Fives.