Universities Tournament: UCL And Oxford Take The Honours
25/10/20: Tournament Fives returned to Eton yesterday, with the 2020 Jesters Universities Tournament taking centre stage.
Merely to be playing felt like a victory - for the robustness of the EFA's efforts in ensuring the game could return back in August, for the willingness of Eton to make their courts available during half-term and for the resilience of the twenty pairs of Fives players who made it to Eton for a wonderful day of Fives. There was the odd new feature to get used to - test and trace QR codes, elbow bumps instead of handshakes and socially distanced trophy presentations - but it was in the main a hugely welcome return to normality for a day.
Nothing could be more normal for the Universities tournament than a manic few days for the organiser leading up to the competition, trying to fix up pairs and deal with players dropping in and out at the last minute. This year had some extra challenges to deal with as players came in and out of self-isolation, waited on COVID test results for themselves or their housemates and found themselves suddenly unable to travel due to their area moving into Tier Three on the day of the tournament. The final piece of the jigsaw was slotted in during an unscheduled stop just off Junction 5 of the M40, as news came in of one of the UCL women's team suddenly finding herself having to turn round at Paddington station and head home after receiving a text message instructing her to self-isolate just as she was about to board the train to Slough, Fives gloves in hand. Five minutes later, a willing replacement had been rustled up from Imperial and it was back on the motorway and on with the show.
The women's tournament featured four pairs - entries from Durham, Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham Trent, Cardiff and Bath all ruled out in the run up to the tournament - but the quality was high with Marjolaine Briscoe going for a fourth successive title, this time alongside Salopian and new Oxford recruit Sarah Jackman, Sarah having been runner-up in the 2018 competition while representing London. They were up against a strong UCL pair of Viva Ruggi (Highgate/Westminster) and Minna Griffiths (Highgate), an Oxford/Imperial hybrid pairing Berkhamstedian Freya Butler with Ipswichian Nadia Mason and the Cambridge/Anglia Ruskin combination of Olavian Sophie Lumsdon and Uppinghamian Charlotte Bowman (a veteran of the Uppingham endurance record). The four pairs all played each other in a best of three match and there was some fantastic Fives all day. Sophie & Charlotte were unlucky to come away without a win as their play deserved an awful lot more and Nadia & Freya looked unbeatable at the start of their match against UCL, winning the first game 12-2 before Viva & Minna turned things around in spectacular fashion to win in three. That win meant that UCL's final match against Oxford would pit the two unbeaten pairs against each other in what was effectively therefore a final. The UCL pair again put in a strong performance, especially at the start, but the greater experience, power and ability to return cut were all on the Oxford side and Marjolaine & Sarah won 12-6, 12-2 to claim a fifth successive win for Oxford and a fourth for Marjolaine.
The men's competition featured a neat sixteen pairs - although it would have been 17 had all of Cambridge's third pair turned up - and a morning group phase sorted out the eight quarter-finalists and the eight plate entrants. The three top-seeded pairs all won their groups pretty comfortably to book their places in the last eight. Group D winners Oxford (Hugo Young & Crispin Straker) were joined in the knockout stages by the Ipswich/Mill Hill Loughborough pairing of Isaac Wagland & Benedict Balcombe (experienced Wagland watchers were impressed that he made it through to lunchtime uninjured; they were then amazed he made it through the whole tournament and the whole of the Under 25s the day after without requiring any medical assistance), who looked good qualifying in second place. Last year's runners-up Oxford Brookes (Sam Mcloughlin & Hal Gibson-Leitao) were keen to go one better this year and won Group A at a canter, looking to learn from last year's experience and conserve Hal's energy for the later stages as well as dosing him up with water and salty crisps to ward off cramp. They were aided by the Cambridge absentee and qualified ahead of the King's/LSE combo of Can Koksal & Swastik Gupta. The third of the top seeded pairs - UCL's Sahil Shah and veteran Joe Marks - made no mistakes in winning Group A, with second place taken by UCL 2 - ex-Cambridge captain Phil Wilkinson and former Highgate wunderkind Ingimar Tomasson - who won the key encounter with Cambridge 1's Viral Gudiwala & Nick Choustikov.
There is always one group that is less straightforward and this year it was Group B. The newly formed three man Cambridge 2 team struggled to get into the mix at the top of the group but the other three pairs were fighting hard for the two qualifying slots. Bristol University's Salopian pairing of Marcus Van Wyk & Tom Castling were the wild cards here, starting slowly with a 15-8 defeat at the hands of LSE's Cholmeleians Rohin Mittal & Jake Bluston. The LSE pair then lost 15-7 to the QM/Trinity Laban Lancing pair of Alex Abrahams & Edmund Habershon, so when Bristol finally woke up and started playing well, a thrilling 15-13 win over Alex & Ed was not enough to get them out of third place on points difference, much to their disappointment.
The quarter-finals were all rather more straightforward; Alex & Ed rediscovered their equilibrium to see off the Loughborough challenge and the big three all made it through, although King's/LSE did put up a strong fight against UCL in the London derby. Into the semi-finals and Sam & Hal continued their energy conservation strategy with an efficent 12-3, 12-4 over Alex & Ed, taking Oxford Brookes back into the final for the second year in a row. The 2019 final saw them lose narrowly to Oskar Denby & Hugo Young of Oxford and for a long time it looked as though it would be Hugo Young in their way again, this time playing with Etonian Crispin Straker. The Oxford pair looked like they had everything under control against UCL in the second semi-final, winning the first game 12-9 and moving out to a 10-2 lead in the second game. The subsequent turnaround was scarcely believable as Joe & Sahil suddenly reeled off 22 of the next 23 points, coming back from the brink of defeat to win the second game 15-11 before going 9-0 up in the decider. As quickly as the Oxford game had disintegrated during that crazy half hour, though, so it suddenly came back just in the nick of time. Hugo & Crispin refound their form, getting on top again in the set piece and hitting winners where minute before there had been nothing but unforced errors. In the blink of an eye, 9-0 had become 9-7 and it was game on again. A lot of credit must go to Sahil & Joe at this point, with Sahil remaining rock solid when it really mattered and Joe using his experience to steady the ship, pick the right options in a couple of crucial rallies and guide his pair through to the final with a remarkable 12-10 third game win.
The final made history in this competition - the Universities tournament has been going (on and off) since 1984 but never before had there been a final without a pair from either Oxford or Cambridge. No non-Oxbridge pair had won the competition since the London pair of Chris Cooley & Dan Hawkins back in 2002 and that was the prize on offer to Sahil, playing in his first EFA tournament final and Joe, Sam and Hal who had all previously tasted defeat in the final of this tournament.
The first question to answer was whose path to the final would favour them most? Sam & Hal were relatively fresh, having spent a lot less time on court in reaching the final. Sahil & Joe had had to work much harder and might be more tired, but their confidence was high after their semi-final win and they were more battle-hardened, having overcome the formidable challenge presented by Oxford in the last four. The answer was both...Sahil & Joe started where they had left off in the semi while Sam & Hal were still adjusting to the change in pace and got off to a flying start. Their lead was enough to win the first game 12-8, but there were already signs towards the end of the first game that Sam & Hal were beginning to get going, and the Brookes pair went on to dominate the second game 12-4 to level things up. The third game was a mini-classic with all four players contributing - Sam's long reach and attacking volleying game, Hal's soft hands and time to play his shots, Sahil's textbook technique from all around the court and Joe's ambidextrous top step retrieving and signature switch from defence to sudden attack. The Brookes pair held a narrow advantage for most of the game without ever being able to put clear water between them and UCL. There was a lengthy stalemate - and some of the best Fives of the match - at 8-8 before Brookes made the first move to reach 11-9 and match point. A couple of half-chances went begging, a couple of tricky let situations were discussed (amicably), and it was soon 11-11 with UCL serving at second hand. Brookes gambled and went for sudden death and Hal obliged with a perfect cut to put his pair back up and serving for the match. UCL then took their turn to hold their gameball cutting nerve before Joe managed to get one back and finish the match with a volley that flicked off the top of the buttress and shot off unreturnably out the back right of the court to finish a fantastic final and a fantastic tournament.
The plate competitions were, as always, equally hard fought and Plate A was won by Viral Gudiwala & Nick Choustikov of Cambridge who beat the unpredictable Bristol Salopians in the final. Plate B was won by tournament stalwarts Sheffield (Lukas Vanhaesebroeck & Julian Hanton) who had cunningly anticipated Sheffield's move into Tier Three and moved their pre-tournament training camp to London well in advance in order to be able to play. Plate C was competed for enthusiastically by two more tournament stalwart pairs, whose identity shall remain anonymous to protect the innocent.
My thanks go to Bill Norton, Ryan Perrie, Sherisa Gumbs and everyone at Eton for enabling the tournament to take place. to the Jesters for their invaluable continued sponsorship which allows us to refund everyone's travel costs and to all those who took part for making it such a memorable day.
Jesters Universities Tournament 2020
Women's Tournament (Round Robin)
1. Oxford (M.Briscoe & S.Jackman)
2. UCL (V.Ruggi & M.Griffiths)
3. Oxford/Imperial (F.Butler & N.Mason)
4. Cambridge (S.Lumsdon & C.Bowman)
Oxford Brookes (S.Mcloughlin & H.Gibson-Leitao) beat UCL 2 (I.Tomasson & P.Wilkinson) 15-1
QM/Trinity Laban (A.Abrahams & E.Habershon) beat Loughborough (I.Wagland & B.Balcombe) 15-8
UCL 1 (J.Marks & S.Shah) beat King's/LSE (C.Koksal & S.Gupta) 15-8
Oxford 1 (H.Young & C.Straker) beat LSE (R.Mittal & J.Bluston) 15-2
Oxford Brookes beat QM/Trinity Laban 2-0 (12-3, 12-4)
UCL 1 beat Oxford 1 2-1 (9-12, 15-11, 12-10)
UCL 1 beat Oxford Brookes 2-1 (12-8, 4-12, 12-11)
Durham (P.Hall & W.Seath) beat RH 2 (J.Souness & E.Bramwell) 15-0
Cambridge 1 (V.Gudiwala & N.Choustikov) beat Cambridge 2 (M.Johnson/H.Kalaiya/C.Griffiths) 15-4
Oxford 2 (E.Gosnell & J.Greenhouse) beat Sheffield (L.Vanhaesebroeck & J.Hanton) 15-5
Bristol (T.Castling & M.Van Wyk) beat RH1 (T.Murray & M.Pinfield) 15-1
Cambridge 1 beat Durham 15-12
Bristol beat Oxford 2 15-4
Cambridge 1 beat Bristol 15-7
Cambridge 2 beat RH2 15-1
Sheffield beat RH1 15-1
Sheffield beat Cambridge 2 15-0
RH1 beat RH2 15-1