National Open Schools’ Championships Open 2021 (and 2020)
Seb Cooley reports:
01/06/21: This year’s delayed and much reduced National Schools’ Open Fives championships in association with Advanta Wealth were held at Eton on Monday 31st May.
It has been a very unusual year for all the players, with many having barely been on court – notably St Olave’s, who have had no courts even when schools opened as four new courts are being built in Orpington. Also of note was the number of Lower 6th pairs playing, with only 3 of the 9 pairs including Upper 6th players. The whole day was played in temperatures topping 20 degrees with strong sunshine: the courts amplified both sun and temperatures and, as at the weekend, the heat coupled with reduced competitive match time was going to make things very tough for the players unless schools have introduced sauna-based training programmes of which I am not aware.
This was essentially a qualifying tournament for a later finals day, since two key top seeded pairs – one from Highgate, one from Eton – were unable to play on this date. On the day there were five pairs from St Olave’s, two from Shrewsbury and one each from Harrow and Eton. These were put into a group of 5 and a group of 4, with all group matches one game to 12. In group A, it was St Olave’s 2 who played with the greatest assurance and went through the group undefeated; Harrow also played consistently well and with finely weighted shots into the buttress to take second place. Shrewsbury 2 won the match against St Olave’s 3 to claim 3rd place.
In group B, there were three strong pairs in St Olave’s 1, Eton 1 and Shrewsbury 1. St Olave’s 1 played Eton in the first match of the day, taking advantage of a slow start from the Etonians to win 12-4. Two games later St Olave’s met Shrewsbury who immediately switched on for the match and sensed an opportunity, playing some sharp attacking fives to take the Olavians by surprise and win 12-8. Shrewsbury had a short turn-around after this to play Eton and manage to maintain some of their momentum from that match, the Eton pair were now playing markedly better than at the start of the day. Shrewsbury held on to take the game 12-8, leaving them top of the group and St Olave’s 2nd. St Olave’s 4 held out against St Olave’s 5 to take 4th place in the group.
Four pairs were taken through from each group into a knock-out section. Here, St Olave’s 1 and 2 and Shrewsbury 1 took advantage of their qualifying positions with wins against Shrewsbury 2, St Olave’s 4 and St Olave’s 3 respectively but the match of the round – and to some extent of the day, came from Eton vs Harrow. Harrow won the first game 12-8 but Eton had had battles in the day and were determined to stick at it. They pulled back partly by being the more consistent pair: while Harrow played some wonderfully deft shots into the buttress they also led the count of unforced errors, which increased as they tired. Having won the second game to return level the match, the Eton pair never looked back and a tired Harrow could not turn the momentum back: Eton won the third.
The final knockout round for the day saw two pairs undefeated: Shrewsbury 1 had taken St Olave’s’ position in the top seeding spot and played Eton, while Olave’s 2 now faced St Olave’s 1. This second match was one of good intent from the off, with the Olavian first pair stamping authority with a 12-4 first game. The pair two, though, were not to be easily defeated and came back with some excellent angles into the buttress from the back and good variety from their left-hander to intercept shots into the buttress and defend by counter-attacking. The second pair led game two but were just pulled back in to 11-11 and it was pair 1 who closed out 14-12. Many pairs might be beaten having put so much into game 2 and having been close to winning it; instead the second pair took momentum and confidence from the second and pushed to a strong 12-6 win in the third game to decrease the deficit. In the fourth, though, watched from under a makeshift canopy of Howard’s invention, the first pair re-asserted themselves and closed out the match.
Meanwhile Eton after their comeback against Harrow played Shrewsbury 1, who had beaten them in the group stages. Eton had been gaining on confidence and consistency, though, and the first game proved a real battle, Shrewsbury eventually edging it 14-12. At this stage, Eton’s hard work to this point started to catch up with them and they were visibly less able to chase down retrieves and change direction. The rallies therefore increasingly fell in Shrewsbury’s favour: after long battles for any points at the start of game 2, Shrewsbury put together some dominant phases of play and took the second and third games by margins which looked more comfortable on paper than the battle for them had seemed, watching it live.
Meanwhile in the plate competition, Shrewsbury 2 did battle with St Olave’s 3, 4 and 5. Despite having edged ahead of Olave’s 3 in the group stages, Shrewsbury now struggled with the heat and a cold and couldn’t keep up the energy in the last matches, finishing third. Indeed the plate had something of a …. about it, with past form being overturned with abandon. St Olave’s 5, having lost to Olave’s 4 in the pool, found some extra motivation and avenged themselves with a 12-11 win, timing their sprint for their last match of the day. But with the possibility of a shield announced, St Olave’s 4 found some extra reserves which none, least of all St Olave’s 3, had seen coming. The 4th pair won this last game 12-9 to win the plate on points difference.
So St Olave’s 1 and Shrewsbury 1 made it to finals day through the bank holiday heat (one of the few times the conditions have been more comfortable for spectators than for players), with only Shrewsbury being unbeaten on the day. Overall the standard was strong considering the season has stalled more than a learner driver practising hill starts in Snowdonia. We look forward to the conclusion of this tournament and with many pairs having another year in the competition, the prospect is exciting for 2022.
The other age group competitions will take place in October.
Knockout stage results
St.Olave's 2 beat St.Olave's 4 2-0 (12-4, 12-5)
St.Olave's 1 beat Shrewsbury 2 2-0 (12-0, 12-3)
Eton beat Harrow 2-1 (8-12, 12-6, 12-7)
Shrewsbury 1 beat St.Olave's 3 2-0 (12-0, 12-6)
St.Olave's 1 (I.Jochim & Y.Bleunven) beat St.Olave's 2 (I.Adebekun & T.Byrne) 3-1 (12-4, 14-12, 6-12, 12-5)
Shrewsbury 1 (R.McDonald-O'Brien & D.Taylor-West) beat Eton (J.Turcan & L.Hopton) 3-0 (14-12, 12-5, 12-4)
2020 Open Qualifiers
If the 2021 Schools’ Open had been delayed, the 2020 had been in a back corner of the freezer for a few months. But if ever there was a day to defrost it quickly, Tuesday 1st of June was it: the forecast was for 25 degrees, cloudless and sunny and at 10am the courts were already in full sunshine. So idyllic was the day, the railway system had got a train away five minutes early.
Five pairs (two from St Olave’s and one each from Shrewsbury, Ipswich and Highgate) were due to play in this qualifying day, with two strong pairs (one Eton, one St Olave’s) unavailable. One group was planned with each pair playing every other in a best of 3 game. With two pairs delayed by the railway shenanigans, play started a little later than planned with the on-court temperature rising. And the competition ignited straight away: both first-round games were well contested, went to 1-1 and became protracted battles. Highgate came through against Ipswich having started first of the two matches; St Olave’s 2, in touch having been on court the previous day in the 2021 tournament, pushed Shrewsbury all the way in the first two games before the Salopians found their stride, coming through 12-11, 9-12, 12-2. It was 1pm by the time the second round started so the danger of a late finish looked quite real. Fortunately as all the pairs warmed to their work, points started flowing faster. Nonetheless many matches went to a third, deciding game; of the ten, only three matches finished 2-0.
Notable was the improvement in level through the day: unsurprising perhaps given some of these players have not been on court for some considerable time. This showed in better intercept volleys and lengths into the buttress. As the rounds went on, Ipswich consistently showed themselves to be dangerous, taking games to 5 and 6 against St Olave’s 1 and Highgate: Charlie Tweedy, in support of the superbly athletic Isaac Weaver, played some of his best fives despite a slightly twisted ankle in his last match against Shrewsbury. But it was the St Olave’s, Highgate and Shrewsbury who came through the battles and looked to be the pairs to fight it out for the top spot. The first meeting between these came in round 3, when Highgate took on St Olave’s 1. After the compulsory exchange of the first two games, it was the lower unforced error count of St Olave’s that won out in the decider. In the next round, Highgate faced Shrewsbury. The match stood out for unorthodox positionings with three left-handers on court (indeed when the schools had met in the Lent term of 2019 all four players were southpaws). Shrewsbury took a close first game; in the second Highgate went to an 8-0 lead and held most of the lead to win 12-6. In the decider it was Shrewsbury, cutting and returning well, who pressed on and won conclusively.
In the last match of the day, then, well after 6pm with the temperature starting to approach bearable, the two undefeated pairs from St Olave’s and Shrewsbury met each other. Again, there were three left-handers on court and all were now well into their grove intercepting around the buttress and finding sharp volleys in. Tim Byrne for St Olave’s had wonderful lines, spin and touch on his shots in from the back court, supporting Yoann who looked the most organized and reliable cutter and returner of the day. Both Peter Clark and Arthur Garrett for Shrewsbury retrieved stubbornly though and Peter’s accuracy counter-punching in the buttress was telling. St Olave’s took the first game 12-6 but Shrewsbury responded with grit to take the second 12-7, so yet again we were in for a decider. This time Shrewsbury dug in to make a few consecutive returns of cut and maybe the two days in the heat started to take their toll on the Olavians’ legs as the Salopians ran away with the decider, finishing the day on top of the pile.
It had been a long day and a test of match fitness as well as skill, which saw excellent fight from all pairs throughout the day. All had some good, close games and hopefully enjoyed their day. The timing of finals day is yet to be confirmed but odd possibility remains that the winners of this competition might be holders for a negative amount of time, since there’s every chance the 2021 competition will be completed before this one!
Shrewsbury - 8
St.Olave's 1 - 7
Highgate - 6
Ipswich - 4
St.Olave's 2 - 2
Highgate: George Everitt & Joel Robb
Ipswich: Isaac Weaver & Charlie Tweedy
St Olave's 1: Yoann Bleunven & Tim Byrne
St Olave's 2: Isaac Adebekum & Vish Prashar
Shrewsbury: Peter Clark & Arthur Garrett