Oxford Win The Mixed
31/01/22: Oxford won the 2022 Jesters Universities Mixed tournament yesterday, part of a busy day of Fives at Eton.
The Dark Blues were defending a long winning streak in this competition, having kept the trophy in Oxford since 2018, and came to this year's tournament with five pairs, three of whom could consider themselves to be realistic title contenders. Numbers-wise, Cambridge had the edge this year, bringing seven pairs, and although injury prevented U21 champion Jessye Tu and partner Viral Gudiwala from taking part, the Cambridge title challenge was spearheaded by 2015 champion Elana Osen, back at the University for a Masters this year and partnering former men's captain Nick Choustikov. It was also terrific to see several much more inexperienced pairs taking part from both universities, a clear sign of the increasing desire/necessity to recruit new players to the sport at both of the clubs and an indication that it is definitely bearing fruit.
Outside of the two University clubs that have their own courts, there was a bit of disappointment that a couple of very strong potential Durham pairs weren't able to make it (if understandable - it's a long way!) and that Exeter and London entries failed to materialise late on due to injury and work commitments respectively. Nevertheless, Bristol's Old Salopians Katie Oswald & Ed Evans and the Westway UEA/Warwick combo of Lucy Craughwell-Franks & Josh Schrijnen were there to try and break up the Oxbridge cartel and become the first non-Oxbridge winners since Liverpool back in 2017.
The morning group phase sorted the pairs out for the afternoon Fives and also gave new pairings a chance to get used to playing together and to adapt to mixed Fives rules. There were no real shocks in the group matches, with the two closest matches seeing UEA/Warwick win 12-10 against Cambridge 2 to pip them to second place in Group A and Oxford 4 beating Cambridge 3 by the same scoreline to pinch the third and final qualifying berth in Group B. Oxford 1, Oxford 2 and Cambridge 1 all came through unbeaten and the quarter-final line-up was completed by Oxford 3 and Bristol.
Following their narrow defeat to UEA/Warwick, Cambridge 2 (club captains Sze-Lynn Yuen & Dion Huang) found themselves up against Cambridge 1 in the quarter-finals and were unable to overturn the internal pecking order. There was an all-Oxford clash in the other half of the draw, with men's captain James Green and promising newcomer Sophie Clifford-King managing four points against the Oxford first string of Rachel Wood & Ben Hart. Oxford 2 (2018 finalist Carolina Valensise & fresher Beau Swallow) looked in fine fettle as they ended hopes of a UEA/Warwick triumph and Oxford 3 (U21 champion Freya Butler & Andrew Taylor) put in a fine performance to knock out Bristol 15-11. Bristol recovered well from this setback, Katie & Ed finishing strongly to win the quarter-finalists plate and finish fifth overall.
This left the three top Oxford pairs and Cambridge 1 to contest the semi-finals. University champion partners Freya & Rachel were up against each other in the top half of the draw and it was Rachel & Ben who confirmed their status as Oxford 1, taking a tight first game 12-9 before winning the second more comfortably 12-4 to book their place in the final. In the bottom half of the draw, Caro & Beau were looking to make it an all-Oxford final but first had to get past the formidable obstacle of Elana & Nick. The Cambridge pair had the better of the early exchanges and won the first game 12-7; the second was much closer, however, and the Oxford pair were left to rue a couple of missed opportunities that might have taken it to a third game. Nick & Elana kept their cool, though, and when their chance came they took it emphatically to take the second game 13-12 and set up an Oxford v Cambridge final.
With a good size crowd watching on, the final was an absolute classic and a perfect advert for mixed Fives. The "one serve and cut down" rule for the male player ensures that it is very much a pairs game and no-one can try and win on their own; it also throws up some interesting tactical decisions within rallies and creates a situation where some points are of greater significance than others. When you have four strong and well-matched players it can make for a terrific spectacle and this match delivered in spades, with frequent momentum shifts and opportunities both seized and spurned on both sides. Rachel and Elana are becoming familiar foes on court, with this match following their recent encounters in the universities women's final in October and the ladies championships semi-final back in July. Rachel's strong cutting and effective (if occasionally unorthodox) returning were a feature throughout, while Elana was a constant threat in and around the buttress and when given time and space in the back court. Nick started at Cambridge four years ago as a promising player from City of London who lacked experience; in those four years he has played a lot of Fives, worked hard on his game and improved steadily to become a very solid player. There were still a few frustrating unforced errors from him during the course of the final, but these were more than offset by some terrific attacking play and some heroic last-ditch defence at the end of the second game in particular to keep his pair in the match. The key player on the day, however (to this observer at least), was Old Wulfrunian Ben Hart, studying in Oxford as a postgraduate and making his first appearance in a national final. There was little in the way of flashiness in Ben's play, few highlight-reel winners and nothing much to catch the eye of the casual passer-by. What there was, however, was a calmness, a steadiness, a consistency and a noticeable lack of unforced errors, all of which allowed the Oxford pair to stay in the game, not panic when they went a point or two behind and perhaps most importantly not to worry when they missed a chance or two to win both of the first two games. With Rachel feeding off Ben's level-headed approach, the Oxford pair stayed in control when both games were set at 11-11, holding off everything Elana & Nick could throw at them and closing both games out to win 12-11, 14-12. There was no trophy to present (the Cambridge President was suitably apologetic, having left it at home), but it was nevertheless a fine end to a fine tournament.
If the latter stages of the main tournament was characterised by Cambridge 1 seemingly taking on the whole of Oxford, Plate A was the reverse as Oxford 5 (Jess Ebner-Statt & Ed Taylor) attempted to fight their way past one Cambridge pair after another. They almost managed it but with Jess one game away from emulating her brother Robert's plate win in the U21s last weekend, Charlotte Bowman & Lewis Drummond (Cambridge 3) rescued Light Blue honour with a 15-8 win. Plates B and C were fought out by the lower Cambridge pairs, all of whom improved mightily during the course of the day, although the Plate B final wasn't played as one of the players was attending a supervision back in Cambridge via Zoom (on a Sunday afternoon - what is the world coming to? It would never have happened in my day etc etc).
My thanks go to the Jesters for sponsoring this competition (their travel grant is crucial to its success), to Eton for hosting, to James, Freya, Dion & Sze-Lynn for ensuring such a great Oxbridge turnout and to Ed, Katie, Lucy and Josh (and Theo!) for stopping it being a two horse race.
Universities Mixed Tournament 2022
Oxford 1 (R.Wood & B.Hart) beat Oxford 4 (S.Clifford-King & J.Green) 15-4
Oxford 3 (F.Butler & A.Taylor) beat Bristol (K.Oswald & E.Evans) 15-11
Oxford 2 (C.Valensise & B.Swallow) beat UEA/Warwick (L.Craughwell-Franks & J.Schrijnen) 15-3
Cambridge 1 (E.Osen & N.Choustikov) beat Cambridge 2 (S-L.Yuen & D.Huang) 15-1
Oxford 1 beat Oxford 3 2-0 (12-9, 12-4)
Cambridge 1 beat Oxford 2 2-0 (12-7, 13-12)
Oxford 1 beat Cambridge 1 2-0 (12-11, 14-12)
Oxford 4 beat UEA/Warwick 15-8
Bristol beat Cambridge 2 15-7
Bristol beat Oxford 4 15-11
Cambridge 3 (C.Bowman & L.Drummond) beat Oxford 5 (J.Ebner-Statt & E.Taylor) 15-8
Cambridge 4 (S.Lumsdon & O.Dietrich) shared with Cambridge 5 (A.Davies & I.Gianfrancesco)
Cambridge 6 (L.Simpson & L.Siriwardana) beat Cambridge 7 (E.Spencer & J.Lai) 12-7