Ho & Houlden Win The London
02/12/19: Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden claimed their first major title at Harrow yesterday with a stunning 3-1 (12-6, 12-8, 3-12, 15-14) win over the previously unbeaten top seeds Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley.
The build up to this year's London Tournament in association with Advanta Wealth had been dominated by the very real possibility that we would be joined by two pairs from Nigeria, which would have marked the first appearance of Nigerian players in Britain since 1989. Sadly visa issues the day before the tournament prevented this from happening, but it is hopefully something that will occur before too long.
24 pairs entered the main competition, with four Saturday morning groups whittling the field down to eight quarter-finalists. Top seeds and defending champions Seb Cooley & Tom Dunbar eased their way through Group A but an injury mid-group to Chris Hughes meant that he and T Walters (seeded sixth) had to pull out, opening up an unexpected opportunity to seize a quarter-final place, one which was taken by the Bhattacharya brothers who gained the second qualifying spot with tight wins over QEB and Cambridge pair Viral Gudiwala & Akhil Shah and Harrow school pair Prickett & Shepard, while Matt Chinery & Steve Kaaber-Gore fought hard and made their opponents work hard at all times.
Second seeds Riki Houlden & Jonny Ho had few problems in Group D, with the new pairing of Ed Taylor & Vish Bhimjiyani taking second place despite being pushed hard by the St.Olave's school pair of Prajeeth Sathiyamoorthy & Isaac Jochim. Top ladies pair Ashley Lumbard & Emily Scoones and Old Westminsters Can Koksal & Ben Merrett also showed up well and it was fantastic to see former Kinnaird champion Manuel de Souza Girao on court alongside Midlands champion Marc Tavra.
Third seeded Olavians James Toop & Tony Barker looked to be in good fettle in Group C, with two of the game's up and coming young pairs fighting for the second qualifying place. Chris Lumbard & Karen Hird came close to upsetting Tom McCahon & Alex Abrahams early on and the school pairs of Ashworth & Barley (Harrow) and Adebekun & Prashra (St.Olave's) competed well. In the end, though, it came down to a one game shoot out between McCahon & Abrahams and Hugo Young & Noah Caplin for the final qualifying place in a tense match, which was decided by a burst of scoring in the middle from Young & Caplin, who were able to withstand a comeback from McCahon & Abrahams to win 12-9.
The final group built up to a last round show down between the top two pairs, as Berkhamsted coaches Ant Theodossi & Ryan Perrie and Old Cholmeleians Joe Marks & Ollie Hallam saw off the challenges of Salopians Guy Williams & Henry Blofield, Ralph Morgan & Chris Blackaby, Olavian schoolboys Yoann Bleunven & Tim Byrne and the Matt & Harry Asquith brother/sister combination. It was especially pleasing to see Matt, Henry and Chris all finding their way back into the game having finished university and we hope to see all three more regularly. The two top pairs both qualified for the quarters before playing each other but the match between them was of crucial importance as it would decide who went into the fourth seed slot and who into the seventh seed position and in the end it was Ant & Ryan who held their nerve to win 12-11 and top the group by the narrowest of margins.
While the top eight pairs got themselves ready for the quarter-finals, those non-qualifiers still keen for more got stuck into the plate competition, which produced some incredibly close and exciting matches. A particular highlight was a threeway tie in one of the four mini groups, with Koksal & Merrett sneaking into the semi-finals by the skin of their teeth ahead of Hird & Lumbard and Ashworth & Barley. There they were joined by Williams & Blofield, McCahon & Abrahams and Gudiwala & Shah. Tom & Alex beat Viral & Akhil 15-11 in the first semi-final then had to wait while the other side of the draw caught up. Henry & Guy dismantled Can & Ben 12-4 and looked confident going into the final but the rested Tom & Alex had saved their best for the end of the day and came out all guns blazing, blowing away their Salopian opponents in a hail of attacking winners to race to a well-deserved 15-4 victory.
There were interesting stories developing elsewhere on the courts as the quarter-finals began to unfold. The Bhattacharyas run to the last eight hit a brick wall in the shape of Toop & Barker, who efficiently dismantled the Cholmeleian pair in three quick games. Ho & Houlden were equally ruthless in dispatching Hallam & Marks 3-0. Tradition has it that Cooley & Dunbar inflict similar damage to whoever comes up against them at the quarter-final stage so it did raise one or two eyebrows when Hugo Young & Noah Caplin took 6,5 and 7 points off them in the three games played - impressive stuff from the younger pair but also enough to raise questions about whether Tom & Seb were at their absolute best. The fourth quarter-final always looked likely to be the closest with fourth seeds Theodossi & Perrie taking on fifth seeds Taylor & Bhimjiyani. Although the first game was close, Ant & Ryan always had their noses in front and always seemed the more likely winners, until a late comeback from Ed & Vishal snatched it 13-11. The nature of that win almost certainly influenced the course of the second as Ed & Vishal raced ahead and held on 12-4 to take a 2-0 lead. Ant & Ryan recovered well in the third and once again it was nip and tuck all the way before Ed & Vishal seized the initiative just at the right time, winning 14-11 to seal their place in the Sunday morning semis.
Despite Seb having to drive back to Shrewsbury on Saturday night and then back down to Harrow on Sunday morning, normal service seemed to have been resumed as Tom & Seb made short work of Ed & Vishal in the first semi-final, winning 3-0 for the loss of only 7 points. Last year's runners-up Ho & Houlden got off to a flyer in the first game of the other semi-final against Toop & Barker, taking it 12-2 with relative ease. Anyone who has watched James Toop play over the last twenty years, however, would have known that this was far from over and the Olavian pair duly responded in fine style in the second game, improving their set piece, bringing the error count right down and imposing their game on Jonny & Riki to reach 11-6. There then followed a long and remarkable passage of play in which James & Tony got stuck on 11; they didn't suddenly start playing badly (far from it) and nor did Riki & Jonny produce a blitz of points to narrow the gap in a hand or two. Instead it was a case of the second seeds producing some consistently excellent gameball cutting, James & Tony struggling to get a return into play and then being unable to take any of the few half chances they did manage to create, and Riki & Jonny gradually reeling them in one point at a time to level at 11-11 and then go on to win 14-11. Many a pair would have found that too much to come back from but James & Tony are made of stern stuff and simply redoubled their efforts - with an easier to see and therefore return new ball - in the third game. There was no miracle comeback from Riki & Jonny this time and James & Tony took the third game 12-8 to get themselves right back in the match. Apparently lightning doesn't ever strike twice, but whoever coined that phrase hadn't predicted what was about to happen in the fourth game. James & Tony initially picked up where they had left off in the third and at 11-4 up seemingly had a fifth game in their sights and momentum on their side. Astonishingly, though, Riki & Jonny produced an almost exact repeat of the second game, cutting immaculately again and again at gameball down and once again gradually reducing the deficit all the way to 11-11 and then again to 14-11 in their favour, a remarkable run of 10 points that gave them the fourth game, an amazing 3-1 win and a place in the final for the second year in a row.
The final was the sixth consecutive major tournament with the same two pairs in opposition. Jonny & Riki have proved themselves to be clearly the "best of the rest" in that time but their record against Tom & Seb was not one that would have inspired the bookmakers to do anything other than make Tom & Seb heavy odds on favourites to win yet again, the sequence of Jonny & Riki's scores in the previous five finals reading: 2,2,6,5,3,5,4,4,6,1,5,0,4,6,1. The performances in the semi-finals also seemed to have removed any lingering doubts about Tom & Seb's slightly iffy (by their standards) Saturday form or the after effects of Seb's mid-tournament drive to and from Shrewsbury. With the knowledge of Seb & Tom's unbeaten history as a pair - never having lost a match since they started playing together in 2011 and winning 24 of the last 26 major tournaments (Tom was unavailable for the other two) - the crowd settled down to watch the final with a keen interest as to how this one would go, but with no real expectations of a shock result.
It didn't take long for those expectations to change. Right from the start it was clear that Jonny & Riki were playing at a different level to anything they had produced before. Their cutting in particular - a relative weakness ruthlessly exploited by Tom & Seb in previous encounters - was magnificent, causing all sorts of problems for two of the best returners the game has ever seen and denying them their usual steady flow of scoring opportunities. With the usual set piece dynamic reversed, Jonny & Riki were able to dictate the game instead of chase it and produced some scintillating Fives to take the first game 12-6. It hasn't happened often in their long run of success, but Seb & Tom had been in this position before - losing the first game to a pair playing inspired Fives. Never, though, have they found themselves 2-0 down so when Jonny & Riki repeated the dose in the second game, Tom & Seb suddenly found themselves in unchartered territory and facing their Fives mortality in a way they had never before experienced as a pair. Into the third and they responded as great champions do, straining every sinew and taking immediate advantage of Jonny & Riki's slight drop off in intensity from the stellar heights of the first two games. Suddenly it looked like business as usual, with the returns and winners flowing from the gloves of Tom & Seb and Jonny & Riki reduced to chasing shadows as they went down 12-3.
The start of the fourth game was a crucial point in the match. If Seb & Tom could maintain their dominance of the third game and get out to an early lead, would Jonny & Riki have the self-belief to get back into the match? If Jonny & Riki could refind the intensity and accuracy of the first two games, how would Tom & Seb react? The fourth game was an absolute classic. There were nerves - understandably - at times and maybe a few more errors from all four players than in the first three games. Overall, though, the standard was sky high, with some breathtaking reflex volleying, astonishing retrieving and thrilling rally play all played at an incredible speed, leaving the watching spectators enthralled. Unlike the first three games, where one pair got in front and stayed there, the fourth was close from start to finish. 10-10 became 13-13. Seb & Tom made it to 14 only for Jonny to produce a perfect unreturnable foot down cut. 13-14 became 14-14 thanks to an almost unbelievable defensive volley from Jonny in the buttress that he had absolutely no right to get anywhere near, before the challengers converted their first opportunity. As the winning shot was hit, a low ball across the middle of the court that wrongfooted Tom & Seb and split them down the middle, there was a pause as if no one there - not least Jonny & Riki - could quite take in what had just happened, before a long and loud ovation rang out for all four players but especially for Jonny & Riki for winning their first major title and doing it in such stunning style.
No-one would be foolish enough to write Seb & Tom's Fives obituary just yet (it rather feels like Roger Federer losing to Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon in 2009 and it being reported as the end of an era. 10 years and numerous majors since...) but it is perhaps an appropriate moment to take a step back and reflect on just what they have achieved as a pair up to this point. Being the best pair and winning tournaments is one thing. Doing it for nearly nine years without ever losing a match and indeed losing fewer than ten games in that time is quite another and is a sporting feat that surely deserves wider recognition. And as mentioned before, I suspect we haven't seen the last of them just yet...
For Jonny & Riki, however, this was a memorable day, a fantastic achievement and a massive breakthrough to the next level. It also opens up the fabulous prospect of what might happen over the course of the rest of the season, at Shrewsbury in the Northern Tournament in February and then in the Kinnaird Cup at the back end of the season, with these two pairs continuing a rivalry that is now on very different terms, and one or two other pairs fancying their chances of getting involved too.
Amid all the excitement of the main competition, it would have been easy to overlook the Festival competition that was taking place at the same time, but this would be a mistake as without the grassroots of the game, the elite game itself has no future. All the signs over the weekend were that the grassroots are in good health with 34 pairs - young and old, male and female - taking part, producing a record entry overall for the weekend of 58 pairs. There was a large Ipswich contingent there (once they'd got themselves out of South Mimms services and actaully on court at Harrow) plus boys and girls from St.Olave's, Harrow and Holyport, the Royal Holloway team and a wide variety of club players with a special mention going to the City of Norwich contingent of pupils Robert Hunter & Aiden Dures and teacher Tom Hanrahan, who we were delighted to see playing so enthusiastically and so well.
The courts were full all day, but in the end it was experience that won out, with the latter stages dominated by some familiar names from the tournament and club circuit. Most notable was the female domination of the top end of the competition with three of the top women's pairs making the semi-finals with only Ralph Morgan & Merlin Goldman there to offer some male resistance. The final had a very familiar look, as the top two women's pairs locked horns once again. Ashley Lumbard & Emily Scoones have looked in fine form this season, with some strong league performances under their belts, and having slightly outperformed Karen Hird & Charlotta Cooley at the recent Midlands Tournament, they would have been fancying their chances of claiming their scalp in the first final meeting outisde of the Ladies Championships. Karen & Charlotta had other ideas, however, and produced one of their best performances for a long time, dominating all aspects of the match to win comfortably 12-2, 12-4 and become the first ever female pair to win an Open Festival title.
Further down the batting order, there were plates galore, with North Oxford newcomers Steve & Mark Kaaber-Gore claiming Plate A and marking themselves out as ones to watch for the future. The Ipswich strength in depth brought about success in Plates A2, B, C and E (although none - remarkably - for plate specialist Tony Stubbs) with their run only broken by Royal Holloway's Sam White & Ben Fitzpatrick who won a thrilling Plate D final against Holyport's Sophie Wisa & Darcey Clarke.
My thanks go to Ian Hutchinson and everyone at Harrow School for hosting the tournament, to Advanta Wealth for their continued sponsorship, to EFA Chairman Chris Davies for presenting the trophies and to everyone who came and played and made it such an enjoyable weekend.
T.Dunbar & S.Cooley (1) beat H.Young & N.Caplin 3-0 (12-6, 12-5, 12-7)
E.Taylor & V.Bhimjiyani beat A.Theodossi & R.Perrie (4) 3-0 (13-11, 12-4, 14-11)
J.Toop & T.Barker (3) beat A.Bhattacharya & A.Bhattacharya 3-0 (12-2, 12-0, 12-0)
R.Houlden & J.Ho (2) beat J.Marks & O.Hallam 3-0 (12-2, 12-1, 12-1)
T.Dunbar & S.Cooley (1) beat E.Taylor & V.Bhimjiyani 3-0 (12-2, 12-4, 12-1)
R.Houlden & J.Ho (2) beat J.Toop & T.Barker (3) 3-1 (12-2, 14-11, 8-12, 14-11)
R.Houlden & J.Ho (2) beat T.Dunbar & S.Cooley (1) 3-1 (12-6, 12-8, 3-12, 15-14)
G.Williams & H.Blofield beat C.Koksal & B.Merrett 12-4
T.McCahon & A.Abrahams beat V.Gudiwala & A.Shah 15-11
T.McCahon & A.Abrahams beat G.Williams & H.Blofield 15-4
R.Morgan & M.Goldman beat I.Weaver & M.Johnson 15-10
A.Lumbard & E.Scoones beat F.Baron & G.Muzenba 15-1
K.Hird & C.Cooley beat M.Chinery & R.Wood 15-3
D.Redmond & E.Osen beat C.Lumbard & K.Lim 15-14
A.Lumbard & E.Scoones beat R.Morgan & M.Goldman 2-0 (12-6, 13-10)
K.Hird & C.Cooley beat D.Redmond & E.Osen 2-0 (12-4, 12-1)
K.Hird & C.Cooley beat A.Lumbard & E.Scoones 2-0 (12-2, 12-4)
Q-F Losers Plate
I.Weaver & M.Johnson beat M.Chinery & R.Wood 12-9
T.Stubbs & S.Weaver beat O.Avery & B.Whelan 12-6
M.Tavra & E.Phillips beat Aaditya & Ethan 12-11
S.Kaaber-Gore & M.Kaaber-Gore beat C.Tweedy & T.Conway 12-8
A.Bishop & F.Kerr beat Ethan & Abishek 12-11
M.Tavra & E.Phillips beat T.Stubbs & S.Weaver 12-10
S.Kaaber-Gore & M.Kaaber-Gore beat A.Bishop & F.Kerr 12-8
S.Kaaber-Gore & M.Kaaber-Gore beat M.Tavra & E.Phillips 12-8
A.Bishop & F.Kerr beat T.Stubbs & S.Weaver 12-11
Aaditya & Ethan beat O.Avery & B.Whelan 12-9
C.Tweedy & T.Conway beat Ethan & Abishek 12-10
C.Tweedy & T.Conway beat Aaditya & Ethan 12-8
E.Caldwell & A.Phillips beat J.Souness & E.Bramwell 12-1
V.Whytock & W.Woods beat L.Free & H.Catchpole 12-11
V.Whytock & W.Woods beat E.Caldwell & A.Phillips 12-8
Marko & Conor beat Z.Pulchan & R.Stanley 12-9
O.Garrard & L.Rendell beat R.Hunter & A.Dures 12-10
O.Garrard & L.Rendell beat Marko & Conor 12-8
S.Wisa & D.Clarke beat P.Boughton & T.Hanrahan 12-9
S.White & B.Fitzpatrick beat G.Joslin & A.Parker 12-5
S.White & B.Fitzpatrick beat S.Wisa & D.Clarke 12-10
A.Clough & C.Pudney beat F.Roper & E.Lau
R.Catchpole & O.Free beat O.Macdonell-Hannah & A.Phillips
A.Clough & C.Pudney beat R.Catchpole & O.Free 12-8