Universities 2021: Oxford Back On Top
25/10/21: Oxford regained their recent stranglehold on both the men's and women's universities titles with wins at Eton on Saturday.
After the wild chaos of the 2020 tournament, held shortly before the second lockdown and with covid related drop outs left, right and centre, the 2021 edition returned to the more normal "fingers crossed and hope for the best" model of trying to get together large numbers of student pairs from all over the country to Eton for a 10:30am start.
The organiser's phone was quieter than most years on the morning of the tournament and that turned out to be a good sign with no missed trains, no slept through alarm clocks and only a couple of mildly late arrivals preventing the nearly unprecedented situation of having a fully assembled field ready to start more or less on time.
The turnout was a healthy one: both Oxford and Cambridge (the two universities with their own courts and their own permanent clubs) were there in good numbers this year, and there were representatives from plenty of other places - Royal Holloway, UCL, Imperial, Bristol, Warwick, Exeter, Loughborough, Durham, UEA, Edinburgh and Dundee. Most students there had even been to the city whose university they were representing.
A theme of the day was the number of post grads and mature students taking part. If a sign that you're getting older is that police officers start looking young, then the remedy was to be found in several places at Eton. Perhaps it is a sign that you are younger than you think when the students start looking old?
Anyway, all bona fides had been carefully checked and the competition got underway with the seven pairs in the women's competition set to play in a lengthy round robin format, culminating with a final at the end of the day for the two top pairs. The bookies were favouring an Oxford v Cambridge final at the start of the day but there were several pairs looking to cause an upset and get themselves into contention - the Bristol/UEA scratch pairing of Salopian former schools' champion Katie Oswald and Westway coaching guru Lucy Craughwell-Franks offered a particular threat and caused a few nervy moments for Oxford 1's Rachel Wood & Freya Butler, who eventually came through their match 12-7. They weren't the only threats to the top two: the Ipswichian London pair of Nadia Mason (Imperial) and Zhang Pulchan (Royal Holloway) played strongly throughout, as did the Oxford second pair of Under 25 champion Carolina Valensise and fast-improving newcomer Hannah Barber. The two less experienced pairs also showed plenty of promise and improvement throughout the day, Oxford 3 (Imi Culhane & Emma Gilbert) and Cambridge 2 (a rotating cast of Sze-Lynn Yuen, Charlotte Bowman and Jess Marais) ending the tournament with a terrific game that went the way of the Oxford pair. Bookies make a profit for a reason, though, and so it was that the final pitched Freya & Rachel against Cambridge 1's Elana Osen & Jessye Tu.
When Rachel first started at Oxford as an undergraduate a few (let's keep it vague) years ago, she had never heard of Fives. Since discovering the game in 2017 she has progressed rapidly to the point where she reached her first ever senior national final earlier this year. Now a fellow at Wolfson College, the chance to represent her University team alongside club captain Freya Butler came this year thanks to some extensive research into the eligibility rules by her own in-house lawyer and a PG Cert in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, which meant becoming a student again (at least for some of the time). The Cambridge ranks weren't short of experience, either, with their pair featuring Elana Osen, runner-up in 2012 and 2013 and champion in 2014 in her first incarnation as a Cambridge student and now back doing an MPhil and Jessye Tu, Cambridge captain last year and a finalist in this competition in 2019. There were a few early nerves but the match soon settled down into an enjoyable and high-quality encounter. Both pairs were returning cut well, producing some exciting rallies and allowing the game to flow. The first game was close, but Oxford just edged it thanks to a slightly greater level of consistency both at the set piece and around the court. A Cambridge fightback and a third and deciding game would have surprised no-one, but the Oxford pair were steadfast and actually able to tighten their grip slightly in the second game, heading out into an early lead which proved to be decisive as they took the second game to 6 to win the title, a sixth in a row for Oxford and a first for both of these players.
The men's competition featured twenty pairs, who were divided into four groups of five for the morning action. The difficulties in assessing the level of many of the pairs meant that the qualification system was tweaked to give pairs a "second chance". The group winners went straight into the quarter-finals but the pairs finishing second and third went into a repechage round, allowing an opportunity to progress in the main tournament or reset their sights on the plate. Three of the groups were won comfortably, Oxford 1's Summerfieldian Etonians (Alfie Backhouse & Crispin Straker) conceding only 2 points in Group A, Durham's Isaac Weaver (Ipswich) & Poom Hall (St.Bart's/Stowe) just 8 in Group C and the Scottish Westminster combination of Alex Benson (Edinburgh) & Riki Houlden (Masters in Medical Education at Dundee University) a mere 5 in Group D. The minor placings in Group A were far less straightforward to predict and Cambridge 3 (more post grads in the shape of George Poole & Sam Turner) were unlucky to miss out at the hands of Bristol 1 (Salopian/Carthusian duo Ed Evans & Rob Elston) and Oxford/Imperial (Hatam Barma & Saajan Shah). In Durham's group, Bristol 2 (Marcus van Wyk & Tom Castling) added another entry to their increasingly large list of slightly dopey ways to end up in the plate, failing to get past Oxford 4 (OUEFC captain James Green & Cholmeleian fresher Joel Robb) and the UCL/Imperial QE Barnet duo of Abilash Sivathasan & Avinash Kumararuban. The strength in depth of the Oxford squad was illustrated by the performance of their fifth pair - PGCE student Ed Aldous & Old Westminster Jonah Poulard - in Group D, as they qualified in third place behind the kilted Westminsters and strong-looking dark horses Loughborough (Salopian Pete Clark & Millhillian Benedict Balcombe) but ahead of the Cambridge second string of captain Dion Huang (another Westminster!) and Harrovian Theodore Seely.
Most of the excitement in the group stages was reserved, however, for Group B. Warwick/Exeter (Westway's Josh Schrijnen & Theo Santos, whose alarm clock was working this week thankfully) and Royal Holloway (another Westway product in Kacper Mikowski alongside Seath/Avery acolyte Ted Murray) quickly decided to save their best Fives for a serious afternoon assault on the plate competitions, which left a three way battle for the top positions between Cambridge 1 (ex-captain Nick Choustikov & Olavian Tom Xu), Oxford 2 (Etonian fresher Beau Swallow & Harrovian post grad Andrew Taylor) and Oxford 3 (another post grad in Wulfrunian Ben Hart and the veteran Spencer Chapman, now a theology undergraduate at Wycliffe Hall). Cambridge 1 fought hard but couldn't find a way past either of the Oxford pairs, leaving a Dark Blue battle to grab the all important top spot and preferred slot in the draw. With team captain and chief selector Green watching on intently and places in the internal Oxford pecking order at stake as well as different pathways through the knockout stages, the tension was palpable. There was some strong cutting from Taylor and rushes of youthful energy and athleticism from Swallow but in the end experience won the day; Hart played some mature Fives, Chapman played some extremely mature Fives and that did the job - a 12-10 win for the group-topping third pair and the prospect of the repechage followed by the McWestminsters in the last eight for the second pair.
Two of the third placed pairs managed to overturn a second placed pair in the repechage - Oxford 5 beating Bristol 1 12-8 and Cambridge 1 taking out Oxford 4 12-6 to join Oxford 2 and Loughborough in the quarter-finals. In fact, that win by Cambridge 1 was the only thing that stopped all five Oxford pairs making it through, a fine showing from the Dark Blues. The three dominant group winners from the morning continued their serene progress: Oxford 1 abruptly ended the Cambridge run, Oxford 5's heroics came to an end at the hands of Durham and Oxford 2 were unable to find any way past Dundee/Edinburgh. Oxford 3 made it four out of four after a much closer match against Loughborough, with the greater recent court time and match experience of Hart & Chapman again crucial as they won 15-10, much to their delight.
Neither of the semi-finals were close with Backhouse & Straker again conserving energy effectively with an impressivley routine 3 and 4 win in the all-Oxford half of the draw. In the other match, an interesting story was unfolding. Isaac & Poom had a bit of a shocker in the first game against Riki & Alex, trying to force the issue and making lots of mistakes. As a multiple Kinnaird finalist, Riki was proving to be far too strong for the Durham pair, well-supported by his partner Alex Benson, who was a fine schoolboy player and who will hopefully be a strong addition to the Old Westminster ranks when he finishes university in a couple of years time. However, only the tournament organiser and Riki & Alex themselves knew the terms of their participation in the tournament - as a pair not representing the same university, they were not allowed to progress to the final and conceded at match point up in the second game, a game in which Isaac & Poom had put up a much improved showing, demonstrating that they were clearly one of the two strongest "bona fide" university pairs in the competition and well-deserving of a place in the final. None of which meant it came as any less of a shock to them when the congratulatory handshakes were offered at 5-11 down in the second game!
Oxford seemed to have all of the cards in their favour going into the final - the Durham pair have no courts in the North East to practice on, they had had a harder semi-final to negotiate and a much longer journey to get to Eton (Isaac had been up at 5am to get the train down). They also had to get their heads round being thrown into a final shortly after having resigned themselves to going out in the last four.
So, obviously, they flew out of the blocks and dominated the first game of the final right from the start. The hitherto unflustered Backhouse suddenly started making mistakes, Straker suddenly looked tired and leaden-footed and seemed to be reliving his semi-final disappointment at the hands of UCL in the 2020 tournament. The Durham pair took full advantage, playing with speed and attacking intent to take the first game 12-5 against the odds. Could they go on to become the first Durham pair to win the men's competition, eleven years after Andrew Joyce & Will Betts reached the final? Or could Oxford get back on track and push for a sixth Dark Blue win in the last seven years?
The answer came quickly enough as the momentum turned immediately and completely right from the start of the second game. Crispin & Alfred refound their composure, cut out the silly mistakes and most importantly began to settle into a good cut-returning groove. Suddenly the mistakes were coming from Poom & Isaac and with Backhouse showing some of the imperious top step volleying familiar to those who had watched him during his stellar schoolboy career, the match quickly moved in Oxford's favour. They took the second game to just 2 and despite a final flourish from Durham at the start of the third, they went on to win it 12-5 to claim the trophy and complete the Oxford double.
Thanks to Eton for hosting the competition, to the Jesters for their generous sponsorship, which allows us to reimburse the travel expenses for all competitors - a crucial part of the tournament's success - to Dion Huang, Sze-Lynn Yuen, Freya Butler and James Green for organising such large contingents and to all the players who came and played, especially those who travelled such long distances to get there (I mean, Dundee for heaven's sake?!).
Oxford 1 (R.Wood & F.Butler) beat Cambridge 1 (E.Osen & J.Tu) 2-0 (12-9, 12-6)
3. Bristol/UEA (K.Oswald & L.Craughwell-Franks)
4. Oxford 2 (C.Valensise & H.Barber)
5. Imperial/Royal Holloway (N.Mason & Z.Pulchan)
6. Oxford 3 (I.Culhane & E.Gilbert)
7. Cambridge 2 (S-L.Yuen/C.Bowman/J.Marais)
Cambridge 1 (N.Choustikov & T.Xu) beat Oxford 4 (J.Green & J.Robb) 12-6
Loughborough (P.Clarke & B.Balcombe) beat Oxford/Imperial (H.Barma & S.Shah) 12-9
Oxford 5 (E.Aldous & J.Poulard) beat Bristol 1 (E.Evans & R.Eslton) 12-8
Oxford 2 (A.Taylor & B.Swallow) beat UCL/Imperial (A.Sivathasan & A.Kumararuban) 12-9
Oxford 1 (A.Backhouse & C.Straker) beat Cambridge 1 15-1
Oxford 3 (S.Chapman & B.Hart) beat Loughborough 15-10
Durham (I.Weaver & P.Hall) beat Oxford 5 15-4
Dundee/Edinburgh (R.Houlden & A.Benson) beat Oxford 2 15-6
Oxford 1 beat Oxford 3 2-0 (12-3, 12-4)
Durham beat Dundee/Edinburgh 2-1 (0-12, 5-11 ret)
Oxford 1 beat Durham 2-1 (5-12, 12-2, 12-5)
Cambridge 3 (G.Poole & S.Turner) beat Cambridge 4 (L.Siriwardana & O.Dietrich) 12-3
Warwick/Exeter (J.Schrijnen & T.Santos) beat Cambridge 5 (A.Jambhale & L.Drummond) 12-1
Bristol 2 (M.van Wyk & T.Castling) beat Royal Holloway (K.Mikowski & T.Murray) 12-4
Cambridge 2 (T.Seely & D.Huang) beat Cambridge 6 (H.Orrin & E.Chihiro) 12-0
Oxford 4 beat Cambridge 3 12-0
Oxford/Imperial beat Warwick/Exeter 12-5
Bristol 1 beat Bristol 2 12-5
UCL/Imperial beat Cambridge 2 12-10
Oxford 4 beat Oxford/Imperial 12-7
UCL/Imperial beat Bristol 1 scr
Oxford 4 beat UCL/Imperial 12-2
Plate A Quarter-Finalists Plate
Cambridge 3 beat Warwick/Exeter
Cambridge 4 beat Cambridge 5 12-3
Royal Holloway beat Cambridge 6 12-7
Cambridge 4 beat Royal Holloway scr
Cambridge 5 beat Cambridge 6 12-6