Cooley & Dunbar Regain (North) Pole Position
03/02/20: Normal service was resumed at Shrewsbury last weekend as Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley bounced back from their pre-Christmas blip to win the Northern Tournament in association with Advanta Wealth with a convincing 3-0 win over rivals Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden.
The Northern Tournament is always well-supported and this year was no exception with a full capacity entry of 70 pairs taking part in two competitions - a 30 pair main tournament featuring many of the best pairs in the country and a 40 pair Festival featuring many of the not quite so best pairs in the country.
Many of the usual features of the tournament were all present and correct - the biting cold wind, the strong cohorts of Olavians, Ipswichians (at least after midday on Saturday once the delights of the A14 and M6's many service stations had been fully sampled) and Shrewsbury school boys and girls, Andrew Mitchell presiding over things and 14 full courts with pairs waiting to jump in immediately at the conclusion of each match. There were also some differences - a large Royal Holloway EFC contingent in the Festival, name badges for competitors and the unprecedented situation of Seb Cooley & Tom Dunbar coming into a competition on the back of their first defeat in almost ten years of playing together.
Saturday's play saw the group stages play out in both competitions, eight festival groups and six main tournament groups each battling it out on one of Shrewsbury's 14 courts. The Festival groups sifted the field into various sections, with the big hitters/young pretenders/festival bandits reaching the quarter-final stage, the last sixteen losers heading for Plate B, the middle section of the draw readying themselves for Plate A and the most inexperienced pairs preparing to do battle for the coveted Bowl title.
The group stages of the main competition produced some fabulous matches but no huge surprises, the most noteworthy result - a taste of things to come - being a 15-11 win for up and coming youngsters Hugo Young & Noah Caplin over Salopians Sam Welti & T Walters, a result which reversed the 6th and 7th seed positions. The top four seeds - Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden, Seb Cooley & Tom Dunbar, James Toop & Howard Wiseman and Ed Taylor & Laurie Brock - all topped their groups comfortably to head directly into the quarter-finals. The other two group winners - fifth seeded Rex Worth & Tom Cox and Young & Caplin - as well as the six runners-up went into a play-off round to determine the other four qualifiers for the last eight. Worth & Cox made short work of Ipswichians Steve Burnell & Tim Gregory, who had produced a couple of fine wins in the group stages to make it through, and Walters & Welti redeemed themselves with a solid performance against fellow Salopian Al Taylor, who was playing alongside Fives legend John Reynolds, testing out his new hip in a major tournament for the first time and still oozing class over 20 years after his last Northern win. Caplin & Young continued their impressive run wih a convincing win over St.Olave's first pair Prajeeth Sathiyamoorthy & Isaac Jochim while the other match was a shoot out between two other young up and coming pairs in Sam Mcloughlin & Will Sissons and Tom McCahon & Alex Abrahams, which ended in a thrilling 15-14 win for the two Salopians.
Saturday finished with the four quarter-finals and one of the most exciting couple of hours Fives of the season. The big two had regulation wins, Cooley & Dunbar cruising past Walters & Welti and Ho & Houlden putting a swift end to the run of Mcloughlin & Sissons. The 4th seed v 5th seed battle was an intriguing one, pitting the tried and tested pair of Rex Worth & Tom Cox up against the exciting scratch pairing of Ed Taylor & Laurie Brock. The first game was a bit of a damp squib as Cox & Worth fluffed their lines badly, handing the game to their opponents on a plate 12-4. They soon put their slow start behind them, however, settling into their usual pattern of strong cutting and aggressive volleying and making use of their experience in knowing how to deal with the unorthodox challenges posed by the in-form Taylor. With the benefit of hindsight, the tight second game was the key to the whole match: Cox & Worth were within a point of going 0-2 down, a deficit which - whilst not insurmountable - would have taken some clawing back. As it was, they finished strongly to take it 14-12 and were in control from thereon in, Laurie's recent lack of match practice and the newness of the Taylor/Brock partnership allowing Rex & Tom to impose their attacking game and take a fine win 3-1.
This excellent match didn't really get the attention it deserved, however, as the vast majority of those who had stayed to watch were gathered at the back of court one to watch the rapidly unfolding drama taking place. One of the great joys of watching tournament Fives is when a new pair suddenly breaks through and steps up to another level; the signs were there for those who have been closely following results this season - Hugo Young has dominated in age group and University competitions this year and he & Noah Caplin produced some terrific Fives in the London tournament to reach the quarter-finals at Harrow. They went into their quarter-final against five time champions James Toop & Howard Wiseman full of confidence following their wins against Welti & Walters and Sathiyamoorthy & Jochim and it was quickly apparent that they were at least a match for their distinguished opponents. Noah's cut-returning and sharp volleying were causing problems and Hugo's mid and back court shots into the buttress were played with a combination of spin, power and precision that produced a number of winners. Howard & James had both class and experience on their side, though, and the first game was something of a classic as the two pairs felt each other out and momentum swung one way and then the other, with a combative edge always there, although never quite spilling over. Howard & James looked the more likely to win the first game, getting to foot down first at both 11 and 13; both times they were pegged back by the tenacious younger pair before the winning point was secured with a spectacular spin shot to the bottom of the buttress from Hugo. Taking a game from James & Howard is one thing, but closing out a best of five game match quite another. It was all the more impressive then that Hugo & Noah were able to retain their focus and maintain their standard in the second game, which they took 12-9. Even more impressive was their comeback from 7-1 down in the third as Howard & James made their inevitable push to wrest back control of the match. It nearly succeeded, but Hugo & Noah were not to be denied and finished the match with some more dynamic cut-returning from Noah and the blend of thoughtful shot selection and speed and power that is fast becoming Hugo's trademark.
It is great to see some more of the younger generation coming through behind Riki Houlden & Jonny Ho to challenge the astonishing twenty year hegemony of the Toop, Wiseman, Dunbar and Cooley generation; it is also interesting to note that with the exception of Will Sissons, the successful young players in this tournament - Hugo Young (Westminster), Noah Caplin (Westway), Sam Mcloughlin (Shrewsbury), Alex Abrahams (Lancing) and Tom McCahon (Emanuel) - were not necessarily star players at school level and have instead made a conscious decision to focus on Fives and to improve to the point where they are able to start challenging at the highest level. This also poses two questions - who might be the next pair or group of players in a similar position to take the same leap forward and also what might happen if some of the most successful school players and pairs of the last five or ten years were to really push themselves to succeed in the adult game?
The Sunday morning semi-finals were fairly straightforward with the top two pairs showing themselves to be head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Young & Caplin threw everything they had at Cooley & Dunbar but were swatted aside 5, 2 and 5, the defending champions clearly on a mission to prove they are still top dogs. Ho & Houlden matched them more or less point for point, though, dispatching Cox & Worth 6, 3 and 1 to set up the match that everyone had been eagerly anticipating since Riki & Jonny's surprise win at Harrow.
Seb & Tom got off to a fast start, taking a 3-0 lead and briefly threatening to carry out a demolition job similar to the one in last year's final. Jonny & Riki have come on considerably since then, however, and fought back hard to get to 7-8. This was a wonderful half hour of Fives of the highest standard with long, mesmerising rallies, outstanding volleying and retrieving and incredibly few unforced errors. Truly magnificent to watch. Eventually, though, it was Tom & Seb who broke clear, finally getting on top to move swiftly from 8-7 to 12-7 and take the first game. They visibly grew in confidence at this point and the second and third games saw them take charge, reproducing the cut returning brilliance that has become standard over the years and that was missing in the London final. Their rally play subsequently began to flow more and more irresistibly, even though Jonny & Riki continued to play extremely well. The second and third games were won to 5; mission accomplished for Seb & Tom as they won their ninth Northern title and put themselves firmly back into the number one position as they prepare to go for a tenth successive Kinnaird win. For Jonny & Riki, this was a reality check after the highs of Harrow in December and a reminder of the work still needed to get their hands on the big one; they are clearly on the right track, however, and had the London final not happened, this performance - and the first game in particular - would have been seen as a clear step forward. It certainly sets the Kinnaird up nicely in a few weeks time
The various strands of the Festival were bubbling along nicely. The Festival itself quickly turned into a shoot out between the two Olavian school pairs - Isaiah Akpovwa & Aaditya Deshmukh and Genesis Nsenga & Ethan Nancekivell-Smith - and the various combinations of old and even older lags (with apologies to Salopian school player Ben Hulme) lining up to take them on.
Genesis & Ethan, having overcome the impressive challenge of top Shrewsbury girls pair Izzy Wong & Harriet Shuker in the quarter-finals, were downed by Windsor & Eton's Ian Mitchell & Jeff Lawrence in one semi-final. The other half of the draw was proving even tougher as Hulme & Bill Christie won a war of attrition 13-10, 15-13 against Hugo Tobias & Will Seath and Isaiah & Aaditya won a tough three game battle against Ipswichian veterans Peter Boughton & Tony Stubbs before facing each other in an epic semi-final. The Olavians drew first blood, winning game one to 7 before Christie & Hulme roared back to win the second to 8; the Olavians went ahead in the third before being reeled in but in the end Bill & Ben proved to be just too weedy as they lost the decider 12-9. Having won two three setters in a row, the Olavian boys went for the more straightforward option of winning the final in two, playing their best and most consistent Fives of the day to overcome Lawrence & Mitchell and get their hands on the coveted Malcolm Mitchell shields.
Elsewhere, the plate competitions were making their own merry way towards a conclusion. Abrahams & McCahon got over the disappointment of missing out on a quarter-final place by one point to dominate the main championship plate, playing much more consistently and effectively than on Saturday. The Festvial B plate for last sixteen losers was won by Shrewsbury's Harry Marshall & James Crews, who defeated Rugby Fives players Stuart & Harrison from Alleyn's in the final. The A plate was a very Ipswichian affair, with only John Cooley & Ed Phillips stopping a clean sweep of Ipswich semi-finalists. They made it to the final but came up against an inspired Luke Free & Sankaman Malaravan, who played some great stuff to win 15-4.
Six pairs - three Shrewsbury girls pairs, one from Ipswich and two of the Royal Holloway beginners - competed for the Bowl and had some tremendous games once the delay to the competition cause by a fourth form parents' morning had been overcome. Ipswichians Phoebe Venables & Laura Eaden took great delight in recording their first win of the weekend in the 5th/6th play-off but it was the two Shrewsbury school girls pairs of Rachel Ellis & Phoebe Watkin and Ashleigh Pegge & Annie Cox who played each other in the final, with Rachel & Phoebe winning 15-14 in one of the most exciting matches of the whole tournament.
My thanks go to Andrew Mitchell for his masterful organisation, to Seb Cooley, Andy Barnard, Adam Morris and everyone at Shrewsbury School for hosting the tournament, to Advanta Wealth for their sponsorship (the sponsor's banners just about survived their exposure to the Shrewsbury Fives courts wind tunnel) and to all of those who came and played and made it such an enjoyable weekend.
J.Ho & R.Houlden BYE
W.Sissons & S.Mcloughlin beat T.McCahon & A.Abrahams 15-14
R.Worth & T.Cox beat S.Burnell & T.Gregory 15-3
E.Taylor & L.Brock BYE
J.Toop & H.Wiseman BYE
N.Caplin & H.Young beat P.Sathiyamoorthy & I.Jochim 15-5
T.Walters & S.Welti beat J.Reynolds & A.Taylor 15-7
S.Cooley & T.Dunbar BYE
J.Ho & R.Houlden beat W.Sissons & S.Mcloughlin 3-0 (12-3, 12-2, 12-3)
R.Worth & T.Cox beat E.Taylor & L.Brock 3-1 (5-12, 14-12, 12-6, 12-10)
N.Caplin & H.Young beat J.Toop & H.Wiseman 3-0 (14-13, 12-9, 15-12)
S.Cooley & T.Dunbar beat T.Walters & S.Welti 3-0 (12-3, 12-2, 12-2)
J.Ho & R.Houlden beat R.Worth & T.Cox 3-0 (12-6, 12-3, 12-1)
S.Cooley & T.Dunbar beat N.Caplin & H.Young 3-0 (12-5, 12-2, 12-5)
S.Cooley & T.Dunbar beat J.Ho & R.Houlden 3-0 (12-7, 12-5, 12-5)
Main Competition Plate
P.Sathiyamoorthy & I.Jochim beat T.Gregory & S.Burnell 15-5
A.Abrahams & T.McCahon beat J.Prior & G.Wiseman 15-4
A.Abrahams & T.McCahon beat P.Sathiyamoorthy & I.Jochim 15-5
J.Lawrence & I.Mitchell beat G.Bradshaw & J.Chan 15-5
A.Clark & G.Hughes beat F.Barnes & M.Barnes 15-6
I.Wong & H.Shuker beat C.Tweedy & T.Conway 15-14
G.Nsenga & E.Nancekivell-Smith beat Stuart & Harrison 15-6
B.Christie & B.Hulme beat T.Goodman & J.Hepburn 15-1
W.Seath & H.Tobias beat H.Marshall & J.Crews 15-10
I.Akpovwa & A.Deshmukh beat Tommy & Aaaditya 15-0
P.Boughton & T.Stubbs beat S.Archer & G.Davies 15-5
J.Lawrence & I.Mitchell beat A.Clark & G.Hughes 2-0 (12-4, 12-5)
G.Nsenga & E.Nancekivell-Smith beat I.Wong & H.Shuker 2-0 (12-10, 12-3)
B.Christie & B.Hulme beat W.Seath & H.Tobias 2-0 (13-10, 15-13)
I.Akpovwa & A.Deshmukh beat P.Boughton & T.Stubbs 2-1 (12-7, 4-12, 12-7)
J.Lawrence & I.Mitchell beat G.Nsenga & E.Nancekivell-Smith 2-0 (12-10, 12-8)
I.Akpovwa & A.Deshmukh beat B.Christie & B.Hulme 2-1 (12-7, 8-12, 12-9)
I.Akpovwa & A.Deshmukh beat J.Lawrence & I.Mitchell 2-0 (12-8, 12-4)
Festival Plate A
L.Free & S.Malaravan beat O.Free & H.Garrard 15-10
J.Cooley & E.Phillips beat E.Caldwell & W.Woods 15-12
L.Free & S.Malaravan beat J.Cooley & E.Phillips 15-4
Festival Plate B
H.Marshall & J.Crews beat Stuart & Harrison 2-0 (12-2, 12-7)
R.Ellis & P.Watkin beat L.Clarke & J.Dee 15-3
A.Cox & A.Pegge beat B.Fitzpatrick & J.Funnell 15-4
R.Ellis & P.Watkin beat A.Cox & A.Pegge 15-14
P.Venables & L.Eaden beat B.Brendish & M.Pinfield 15-10