NO is the New Black
13/11/17: There was a new name on the Richard Black Cup at Eton yesterday as North Oxford ended five years of Highgate dominance with a 3-0 win in the final of the most competitive and open competition for many years.
Ten teams took part again this year, making this one of the largest tournaments of the season and the standard and in particular the strength in depth continues to rise year on year. Highgate have dominated the competition in recent years but their all-conquering line-up have now begun to move on to University or abroad in some cases. The 2017 Highgate team was still strong - led by OCs Emily Scoones and Eve Smith-Bingham and featuring the current crop of school players - but this time there were several other teams fancying their chances: perennial runners-up North Oxford, the fast-improving Shrewsbury school team, an Ipswich side led by Charlotta Cooley, an EFA team with Ashley Lumbard in their ranks and Oxford University (featuring three former winners of the competition). A young Highgate second team and a group of Berkhamsted players to watch out for in a few years time were there to gain valuable experience, there was a Cambridge past & present side bolstered by Newbury schoolgirl Sasha Howgate and for the first time ever a full Westminster six, led by Elana Osen and including another former winner in Viva Ruggi (ex-Highgate).
The morning's play saw the teams divided into two groups of five to battle it out for the four semi-final slots. Competition was fierce across every court with no team able to relax and cruise through in comfort. Oxford University struck an early blow as Elena Zanchini and Georgia Allen took a second pair win against North Oxford; eventually the absence of two top players in Rosie Parr and Helen Pugh possibly cost the University side a semi-final slot, despite an impressive effort at third pair from fast-improving beginners Lauren Rowley and Laura Stokes. The EFA side - captain Ashley Lumbard, Wendy Carling, Old Salopians Sarah Jackman & Erin Leatherbarrow and Summer Fields gappers and Australian number one and two Molly O'Sullivan & Emily Reed - also put in a strong showing and Westminster also proved hard to beat. In the end though, the North Oxford and Highgate teams came through to claim the two qualifying positions. Top spot was claimed by North Oxford after both sides finished level on points thanks to a 2-1 win for the North Oxford side in the head to head match, with comfortable wins at two and three for the Oxford team and a first pair win for Scoones & Smith-Bingham against Karen Hird & Faye Kerr, who was by far the most inexperienced player on court but who more than held her own for long periods of time to threaten an upset before the Highgate pair took control at the end of the game.
Group B also turned into a two-way fight for top spot between Ipswich and Shrewsbury and the match between them was a classic example of how three pair team Fives differs from an individual pairs tournament. Shrewsbury looked strong across all three pairs, with probably the best third pair in the whole competition in Issy Wong & Ella Windle. Ipswich's challenge was based around their strength at the top of the order with multiple ladies champion Charlotta Cooley and OIs Sarah Frost and Eloise Carter. Shrewsbury quickly won third pair, with Wong & Windle too strong for the plucky Ipswich schoolgirls Lily Rendell & Zhang Pulchan, and Cooley & Carter made pretty short work of Sophia Breese & Katie Graham at first, leaving second pair to decide who would top the group. This was the game of the group, attracting a good sized crowd to watch Sarah Frost & Charlotte Gregory take on Gwenan Davies & Phoebe Wasdell. For most of the match it was the Shrewsbury pair who had their noses in front before Sarah & Charlotte took the intiative when it mattered most to take the game 15-13 and secure first place for the Ipswich team. Elsewhere in the group, the young Highgate second string put in some strong performances, Berkhamsted's youngsters picked up some useful wins and visibly grew in confidence as the day progressed and the Cambridge team of Charlie Farquaharson-Roberts, Natalie Lilienthal, Pippa Ball, Susanna Xu, Ursule Taujankaite and Sasha Howgate fought hard and picked up a decent haul of points to finish just behind Berkhamsted in the final standings.
The plate competition produced some more excellent and competitive matches in the afternoon, with the EFA just edging out the Oxford students for 5th, Berkhamsted finishing strongly to pip Cambridge for 7th and Highgate 2 saving their best until last with a 2-1 win over the fading Westminster side to claim 9th place.
The semi-finals were eagerly anticipated with both results hard to predict in advance. Shrewsbury's third pair once again showed their class in winning comfortably against North Oxford's Faye Kerr & Mandie Barnes, while Karen Hird & Sarah Greasley put in a magnificent performace to beat Sophia Breese & Katie Graham at first pair in a game that threatend to be a whitewash for a while. Once again it all came down to second pair, but this time Davies & Wasdell were never able to get a foothold in their match against an in-form Harry Asquith and the quietly impressive Francesca Turnbull, losing 12-3, 12-4, the result sending North Oxford through to their fifth succesive final.
The big question was whether they would be facing the same opponents who had beaten them in the previous four or whether we were going to see a Hird v Cooley final. Pulchan & Rendell at third pair for Ipswich got off to a really good start against the Highgate pair of Valensise & Britton, leading 8-5 in the first game before the Highgate pair found their form to take control and win 12-8, 12-6. Ipswich's Gregory & Frost got off to a slow start in contrast against Mia Barry & Emma Williets, losing the first game to 9 before winning the second to 6. Ipswich needed to win both first and second pairs to go through and while second pair was in the balance, the first pair was an absolute cracker with Emily Scoones & Eve Smith-Bingham up against Charlotta Cooley & Eloise Carter. The Highgate pair won the first 12-9 and then established a solid lead in the second game. The Ipswich pair fought back to take the game to 11-11 and set to 14. Much to the disappointment and annoyance of Cooley, however, it was the Highgate pair who delivered when it mattered, winnning it 14-11 to put Highgate back into the final, their second pair conceding at 1-1 with the match already wrapped up in order to get on and play the final.
And so for the fifth successive year it was a Highgate v North Oxford final. The personnel were rather different this time, however, with Scoones & Smith-Bingham the only previous winners back in Highgate colours and Faye Kerr & Sarah Greasley newcomers to the North Oxford ranks, with Faye having only started to play the game seriously back in April. Having lost 2-1 in the group match and not really got close at second and third pairs, Highgate took the sensible option of splitting up Scoones and Smith-Bingham, pairing them with U16s Barry and Williets respectively at first and second pair. North Oxford went with the combination that had won the earlier match, with Faye stepping up to partner captain Karen Hird at first pair, Sarah Greasley & Mandie Barnes playing at third and Harry Asquith & Francesca Turnbull in the engine room at second. Barnes & Greasley were first out of the blocks, dominating the third pair match against the valiant but tiring Valensise and Britton, injury eventually stopping the match with the North Oxford pair 12-2, 11-2 up and one point from victory. Injury was also playing its part at second pair with Eve Smith-Bingham struggling with a bruised hand and unable to play at her best, a level she would certainly have needed to have reached to deny an inspired Asquith & Turnbull, whose teamwork and movement were first class throughout the match, their determination to finally win the Black Cup evident right from the start. Fittingly it was the youngest member of the team, Francesca Turnbull, who hit the shot that won the Black Cup, nailing a sizzling right handed back court shot straight into the hole to the great delight of her partner and watching teammates. First pair was still to be decided, however, and there was no doubt that Karen Hird & Faye Kerr were equally determined to win their game and make it 3-0 overall. Karen had been playing superbly well all day and clearly relished the opportunity to take control of the game as much as possible, with Faye providing the support. Emily & Mia put up a strong showing and contributed hugely to a fabulous match, but with Karen in top gear and Faye producing an astonishing performance given her relative inexperience it was the North Oxford pair who won 12-8, 14-12 to complete a clean sweep and finally get their hands on the trophy for the first time, an impressive achievement for a team none of whom went to a Fives-playing school.
My thanks go to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the tournament, to Richard Black for providing and presenting the prizes, to David Mew, Jack Flowers, Ryan Perrie, Andy Barnard, Peter Boughton, Charlotta Cooley, Elana Osen, Karen Hird, Charlie Farquaharson-Roberts, Natalie Lilienthal, Ashley Lumbard and Elena Zanchini for organising and running teams on the day and to everyone who came along to make it such a fun and enjoyable day.
Highgate beat Ipswich 2-1
E.Scoones & E.Smith-Bingham beat C.Cooley & E.Carter 2-0 (12-8, 14-11)
M.Barry & E.Williets lost to S.Frost & C.Gregory 1-2 (12-9, 6-12 ret)
L.Valensise & I.Britton beat Z.Pulchan & L.Rendell 2-0 (12-8, 12-6)
North Oxford beat Shrewsbury 2-1
K.Hird & S.Greasley beat S.Breese & K.Graham 2-0 (12-0, 12-5)
H.Asquith & F.Turnbull beat G.Davies & P.Wasdell 2-0 (12-4, 12-3)
M.Barnes & F.Kerr lost to I.Wong & E.Windle 0-2 (7-12, 6-12)
North Oxford beat Highgate 3-0
K.Hird & F.Kerr beat E.Scoones & M.Barry 2-0 (12-8, 14-12)
H.Asquith & F.Turnbull beat E.Smith-Bingham & E.Williets 2-0 (12-3, 12-7)
M.Barnes & S.Greasley beat I.Britton & L.Valensise 2-0 (12-2, 11-2 ret)
EFA beat Oxford University 2-1
Berkhamsted beat Cambridge University 3-0
Highgate 2 beat Westminster 2-1