Ho & Houlden Are A Level Up In The North
07/02/22: Top seeds Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden took their second major title of the season with a convincing win at the Northern Tournament in association with Advanta Wealth at Shrewsbury at the weekend.
The Northern Tournament is always one of the major events in the Fives calendar and its absence in 2021 left a large hole. It made it even more of a treat therefore to have everyone at Shrewsbury over the weekend with 60 pairs filling the courts and enjoying being back.
The usual last minute ins and outs were exacerbated further this year by the spectre of late positive covid tests and it was only right at the last minute that the draw was finally fixed with 24 pairs in the main tournament and 32 starting in the festival. The match ups at the sharp end of the London Tournament before Christmas had been shaken up by the ankle injury that forced the early withdrawal of Tom Dunbar; with the ankle not sufficiently recovered to play in the Northern, it meant that Tom & Seb Cooley, the champions from 2020 (indeed in nine of the last ten editions of the tournament), would not be able to defend their title. Seb took the opportunity to form an exciting but untested partnership with Old Salopian and 2019 schools champion Will Sissons, while London champions Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden assumed the mantle of number one seeds and pre-tournament favourites.
The one game to 12 group stage format also opened up the possibility of some upsets, and indeed the seeding order was soon being overturned as Cooley & Sissons found themselves on the wrong end of a 12-10 scoreline against Chris Hughes & Sam Welti and former champions James Toop & Howard Wiseman lost 12-11 to the new pairing of Tom McCahon & Laurie Brock in a thrilling match. Ho & Houlden navigated their way through to the quarter-finals unscathed, as did Hugo Young & Noah Caplin. These six pairs were joined in the quarter-finals by Richard Tyler & Nick Shaw, who held off strong challenges from both Mark Yates & Sid Simmons and Abhishek Bhattacharya & Ed Evans and Andrew Rennie & Hal Gibson-Leitao, who benefited from the withdrawal of veterans champions Mike Hughes & Grant Williams. They had impressively demonstrated their enduring quality in the group stages but were unable to continue through to the last eight. Elsewhere in the main draw it was great to see a strong contingent from Harrow School gaining more valuable experience, something that also applied to the senior Shrewsbury School pairs that took part, although it was shame that a combination of golf and covid meant that the Shrewsbury first pair weren't able to get on court and test themselves against some of the top players.
With the rain and wind closing in in traditional Northern Tournament style, only the (fool)hardy lasted the distance in watching the four quarter-finals on Saturday evening. Those who did were rewarded with some terrific entertainment and top quality Fives. Tyler & Shaw were unable to make too much of an impression on the scoreboard against the top seeds, but gave an excellent account of themselves nevertheless, producing some fine play for little reward. Rennie & Gibson-Leitao, on the other hand, were making the most of their earlier reprieve and were improving all the time. Their opponents - Young & Caplin - had things under control in the first two games but had to withstand some fierce pressure in the third before winning 15-10 to close the game out and make a third successive major semi-final. The two tight results in the morning group deciders meant that the remaining two quarter-finals pitted Cooley & Sissons against Brock & McCahon and Toop & Wiseman against Hughes & Welti. So far, so following the original seeding, except that the morning results meant that these two matches were now in opposite halves of the draw to the ones they were orginally predicted to be in. Hughes & Welti were keen to take another big scalp but a full five game match is a different proposition to a one game shootout and they were never really able to put Toop & Wiseman under enough pressure, coming closest in the third game where they got to 8. The final quarter-final was the closest and perhaps the hardest to call; the scratch pairing of Laurie Brock & Tom McCahon, who had looked so good in the group stages, against the "wild card" Cooley/Sissons combination. The first three games were exciting to watch and there was some terrific Fives but they weren't particularly close: Tom & Laurie got off to the better start and won the first game to 5 before Seb & Will really began to hit their stride in the second game, dominating their opponents to level at 1-1. Momentum switched again at the start of the third and it was Tom & Laurie who flew out to a big early lead, which was enough to put them 2-1 ahead. The fourth game was the first one where the score remained close throughout and neither pair was able to establish dominance. It was great to see Will playing in a major quarter-final, and there were glimpses (quite a few of them in fact) of his talent and shotmaking ability, but his current lack of playing time while away at university and his relative inexperience at this level meant there were inevitably some mistakes thrown in. Seb was Seb, of course, and with Laurie and Tom both cutting well and combining well as a pair, it was hard to pick a winner as the fourth game progressed towards a tense conclusion. In some ways, a fifth game would have made for a fitting conclusion to a terrific match, but in the end it was Laurie & Tom who sneaked the fourth 13-12, to complete the semi-final line-up.
The semi-finals on Sunday morning were set to be fascinating matches; sadly the Young & Caplin v Brock & McCahon match didn't live up to expectations as Laurie was struggling from the start with an injury to his right arm. They needed to repeat their best form of the previous day to be a threat against Hugo & Noah and it wasn't to be, although they gave it their best shot for a couple of games before admitting defeat. The other semi saw Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden up against James Toop & Howard Wiseman. The basic scoreline shows a 3-0 win for the top seeds, but that doesn't tell anything like the full story. Howard & James had the better of the early exchanges and got themselves into a 6-3 lead before Jonny & Riki found a run of points to level at 8-8 and then take the first game 12-8. The second took that model but pushed it to the extremes as the Olavian pair dominated from the start, frequently switching around to enable James to play on the top step and forcing Riki & Jonny to play at their pace and make some uncharacteristic errors. At 10-1 ahead, the second game seemed theirs for the taking but there then followed a remarkable passage of play as Jonny & Riki - perhaps freed up a little faced with such a large deficit - upped the pace of their game and started to dominate both the set piece and the rally play, denying their opponents the scoring opportunities they needed to close the game out. Gradually they began to reel them in, initial hope quickly turning into expectation as the gap narrowed. 10-1 became 10-10 and Jonny & Riki didn't stop there, completing a run of 14 unanswered points in one game (a rare feat indeed) to turn the match on its head and take a 2-0 lead. They continued their form into the third, going 4-0 up before James & Howard managed to get back on the scoreboard, and although the Olavian pair continued to push hard and did manage to steady the ship a little, the damage had been done and Jonny & Riki took the third game to 4 to take their place in the final.
The final threw up a couple of notable firsts: a first major final for Hugo Young & Noah Caplin, a first featuring two Old Westminsters and the first featuring a player from Westway. It was also the youngest major final for some considerable time. These two pairs had met in the semi-finals at Harrow back in November and Riki & Jonny won that in straight games. The result here was pretty similar and Hugo & Noah never really looked able to match the consistency, accuracy and precision of their opponents. Maybe solitary beans on toast and scrabble really is the best way to prepare for a Shrewsbury final rather than the more traditional curry. Let's hope not. Nevertheless, this was another impressive step forward for Hugo & Noah and will hopefully have given them a taste for more as well as an indication of what they need to work on to match the level that Jonny & Riki are currently playing at. For Riki & Jonny, this was a first win at the Northern Tournament and their second major trophy of the season, opening up the tantalising prospect of a clean sweep at the Kinnaird Cup in a couple of months time. Looming large in their rear view mirror (well not that large actually in Seb's case) are of course the defending Kinnaird Cup champions Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley and their potential return is just one of the things to look forward to in that competition.
Several of the Saturday main tournament pairs decided that one day was enough (a little disappointing - they were missing out!) but there were more than enough back on Sunday to take part in a terrific plate tournament. Sadly, an injury to Alex Abrahams meant he was reduced to the role of spectator for the day but his erstwhile partner Emily Scoones picked up a decent replacement in the form of Nick Shaw and they came through in first place in their group ahead of Karen Hird & Charlotta Cooley, Gwydion Wiseman & Tommy Farmer and James Crews & Harry Webster. The other group was won by Salopians Adam Morris & Connor Jones, who saw off Bilal Anwar & Bill Christie, Alex Clark & Monty Baly and Abs Bhattacharya & Ed Evans to make it into the final, which they won 2-1 after a thoroughly entertaining battle with Nick & Emily.
The main tournament is of course only a part of what makes the Northern so special. The Festival provides an opportunity for everyone to come and play and enjoy themselves and this year was no exception. The group stages and a first knockout round sorted the field out on the Saturday, setting the scene for the Festival itself and assorted plate competitions on the Sunday. This year produced an extremely well-balanced set of quarter-finalists, with four of the seven matches between them going to a deciding third game. Ian Mitchell & Jeff Lawrence had looked in fine form on the Saturday but found themselves up against a terrific Sunday morning performance from Dom Redmond & Elana Osen, who powered through to the semis with a convincing 12-6, 12-9 win. They then found themselves up against an even older and even wilier pair in the legendary Ipswich duo of Peter Boughton & Tony Stubbs, who had themselves made the last four only after an epic three game win over Olavian youngsters Aadi Agarwal & Bomi Adenugba in one of those splendid festival matches where one pair is over a hundred years older than the other one. The other half of the draw saw two young Ipswich pairs taking on more experienced opponents: Elliot Caldwell & Will Woods - after some promising Saturday results - were unable to find their best form against Matt Chinery & Rachel Wood, but Sankaman Malaravan & Jeremy Hughes (stitched up after the traditional Ipswich trip to Shrewsbury hospital for Stubbsy the day before) caused Newbury's Will Thomas & Paul Holland all sorts of problems before finally bowing out 12-7 in the decider.
It would have required a brave (or foolish) punter to predict a winner as the semi-finals got underway. Could Dom & Elana repeat their quarter-final heroics or would they meet their match in Peter & Tony? Could tournament newcomers Will & Paul make the final at their first attempt and stop Rachel getting her hands on yet another trophy? The answers turned out to be no, yes and no, but not without a fight and not without some fantastic Fives. The remarkable Boughton & Stubbs, fortified by the 17 stops for coffee on the way to Shrewsbury the day before, somehow found a way to negate the formidable threat of Redmond & Osen, winning through 12-7, 12-7, while Matt & Rachel recovered superbly from the loss of the first game to turn things round and just about hold their nerve at the end of the match to win through 12-9 in the decider. Remarkably, the final moved courts in order to avoid the glare of the sun at the back of court 6 (a somewhat anomalous half an hour in the general weather context of the weekend) and after Boughton had spent the obligatory 10 minutes attached to his intravenous caffeine drip in the corner of the pavilion, the action started - the last match on court, watched by a few diehards and largely ignored by the remaining Ipswich School pupils. The pre-match predictions of the cognoscenti contained rather more confidence that it would be a three setter than in actually predicting a winner and they were indeed proved correct. The Ipswich veterans edged a cagey first game 12-9, but it did look as if the tank was beginning to empty and the North Oxford pair stormed through the second game 12-2 to set up a decider. When Matt & Rachel then went 8-3 up in the third, it looked like it would all be over pretty soon, but the benefits of that 17th service station stop the day before suddenly became apparent as Peter & Tony found a final burst of energy to close the gap and set up a thrilling finish. A couple of strong returns from Matt and some excellent back court play from Rachel took them ahead again and 11-8 up; still it wasn't enough as the Ipswich pair found some winning gameball cuts and then nicked a couple of points to move within one of taking it to overtime. It wasn't to be, though and Matt & Rachel finally made it over the line to win 12-10, with all four players just pleased that they hadn't been asked to play a best of five game final. Although not half as pleased as the spectators, frankly. Anyway, this was a brilliant way to end the weekend and although it was tough on Peter & Tony, who had played and fought so well, it was a tremendous victory for Matt & Rachel, who has now added the Northern festival trophy to the Boughton Bowl (some irony there...), Black Cup, Universities and Universities Mixed that she has already won this year. The Chinery/Wood household is going to need a bigger trophy cabinet.
Elsewhere in the Festival, the other pairs battled it out for the various plate competitions. There was a large round robin competition for the pairs who had lost in the round of 16 on the Saturday evening and this test of endurance was passed with flying colours by the St.Olave's pair of Rishi Nandakumar & Tanish Arjaria, who went through Sunday undefeated to triumph in Plate B. Plate A featured the pairs who had finished third and fourth in the Saturday group stages, with the addition of some extra Shrewsbury School girls pairs. Four groups produced a semi-finalist each and unlike in the festival quarter-finals, this time it was the youngsters who triumphed over their adult counterparts, Ipswich pairs Luke Davison & Harvey Garrard and Matt Wiliams & Sam Allen defeating Fiona Barnes & Mandie Barnes and Peter Westwood and son Andrew respectively before Harvey & Luke overcame their teammates 15-12 in the final.
My thanks go to Adam Morris and everyone at Shrewsbury School for hosting the tournament and making everyone so welcome, to Advanta Wealth for their sponsorship, to Andrew Mitchell for his fantastic organisational work and to everyone who came and played and made it such an enjoyable weekend. It was good to be back!
J.Ho & R.Houlden beat R.Tyler & N.Shaw (12-0, 12-3, 12-1)
J.Toop & H.Wiseman beat C.Hughes & S.Welti (12-4, 12-5, 12-8)
L.Brock & T.McCahon beat S.Cooley & W.Sissons (12-5, 6-12, 12-5, 13-12)
H.Young & N.Caplin beat A.Rennie & H.Gibson-Leitao 3-0 (12-2, 12-6, 15-10)
J.Ho & R.Houlden beat J.Toop & H.Wiseman 3-0 (12-8, 15-10, 12-4)
H.Young & N.Caplin beat L.Brock & T.McCahon (12-3, 12-6, ret)
J.Ho & R.Houlden beat H.Young & N.Caplin 3-0 (12-5, 12-4, 12-6)
Main Tournament Plate
A.Morris & C.Jones beat N.Shaw & E.Scoones 2-1
J.Lawrence & I.Mitchell beat G.Holliday & O.Sharman 2-0
D.Redmond & E.Osen beat T.Arjaria & R.Nandakumar 2-0 (12-7, 12-9)
P.Boughton & T.Stubbs beat A.Mupesa & A.Mupesa 2-0 (12-0, 12-0)
A.Agarwal & F.Adenugba beat H.Gardner & A.Phillips 2-1 (9-12, 12-6, 12-6)
W.Thomas & P.Holland beat J.Hepburn & T.Goodman 2-0 (12-5, 12-0)
J.Hughes & S.Malaravan beat T.Wylie & T.Jagger 2-0 (12-5, 12-7)
W.Woods & E.Caldwell beat J.Cooley & J.Keegan 2-0 (12-2, 12-0)
M.Chinery & R.Wood beat T.Parsons & D.Mcloughlin 2-0 (12-3, 12-2)
D.Redmond & E.Osen beat J.Lawrence & I.Mitchell 2-0 (12-6, 12-9)
P.Boughton & T.Stubbs beat A.Agarwal & F.Adenugba 2-1 (12-8, 13-15, 12-5)
W.Thomas & P.Holland beat J.Hughes & S.Malaravan 2-1 (12-4, 10-12, 12-7)
M.Chinery & R.Wood beat W.Woods & E.Caldwell 2-0 (12-5, 12-2)
M.Chinery & R.Wood beat W.Thomas & P.Holland 2-1 (7-12, 12-8, 12-9)
P.Boughton & T.Stubbs beat D.Redmond & E.Osen 2-0 (12-7, 12-7)
M.Chinery & R.Wood beat P.Boughton & T.Stubbs 2-1 (9-12, 12-2, 12-10)
Festival Plate A
S.Allen & M.Williams beat P.Westwood & A.Westwood 15-8
L.Davison & H.Garrard beat F.Barnes & M.Barnes 15-10
L.Davison & H.Garrard beat S.Allen & M.Williams 15-12
Festival Plate B
1. T.Arjaria & R.Nandakumar
2. H.Gardner & A.Phillips
3. T.Parsons & D.Mcloughlin