Kinnaird Cup Final: Cooley & Dunbar Unassailable

Mark Williams reports:

15/04/19: On a crisp, but sunny afternoon, a repeat of last year’s Kinnaird final in association with Advanta Wealth between Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley (holders) and Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden (challengers) played out in much the same way.

Watch the final here: GAME ONE     GAME TWO     GAME THREE

In the first set, the holders raced to a 7-0 lead; six of them in a single pair of hands, playing zero-risk but nonetheless very positive fives. After this wake-up call, the challengers upped their game, competed hard, and exchanged shot for shot, maintaining level par with their opponents, but losing the end-game 5-4, and therefore the game 12-4; after their spectacular start, it took the holders a total of 14 of their hands to finish the game.

Once again, in the second game, Ho and Houlden were caught in the headlights as Dunbar and Cooley raced to 6-0; once again the challengers responded, in spectacular style this time, winning five points in two hands, but the holders ruthlessly battened down the hatches and only conceded one more point to win the game 12-6 in 16 hands.

In the third game, the holders quickly established a 4-0 lead; the challengers responded with a single point which was to be their last, and it took the champions just 7 hands to win 12-1.

There was less of a gulf between the two pairs compared to last year’s final and the recent Northern final, and once they got into the first two games, there were plenty of long rallies where Ho and Houlden competed strongly, occasionally forcing errors from their opponents, however, Dunbar and Cooley continued to play with the confidence and purpose that comes from always holding the lead and winning the Kinnaird together eight times. This ninth consecutive success places them one behind the legendary Brian Matthews and John Reynolds, and one ahead of the total won by Tony Hughes and Gordon Campbell; in individual terms, this was Tom Dunbar’s fifteenth win (Reynolds 11 is second), and this was Seb Cooley’s ninth win (one ahead of Campbell, level with Hughes and one behind Matthews).

Tom Dunbar stood out at the set piece throughout the match, consistently returning cut, except for the occasional hard high cut to the left shoulder, and achieving the highest rate of cutting opponents down. He remains the best player on top step with his ambidextrous volleying and ability to read the game, and he has improved the variety and change of pace of his back court strokes. Seb Cooley was his usual bustling and energetic self, concentrating in a more disciplined way on playing to the buttress, and rarely missing the chance to volley; his back court play, especially in defence, was its usual reliable self. Jonny Ho backed his attacking instincts and volleyed effectively, anticipated the ball early, and played with remarkable consistency. Riki Houlden played his groundstrokes with his usual consistency and certainty, and read the game very well on top step, volleying whenever the opportunity arose.

The standard of retrieving from all four players was outstanding and the best collectively that I have ever seen, meaning that once the ball was in play, there were many extended rallies which delighted the crowd of around 50. Given this excellence, a rally which finished with a ‘kill’ on length in the buttress or the ‘hole’ was a rarity. Nothing, however, could hide the fundamental difference between the pairs: whilst Ho and Houlden were able to react to events and achieve a very high standard of consistency and work-rate, except for a couple of hands in the second game, they were unable to sustain any kind of attacking pressure on their opponents, who held most of the aces. Inevitably therefore, it was the challengers who ended up making both forced and unforced errors more often and that was, of course, decisive. They will need to develop a more attacking game in the future to seriously challenge their outstanding opponents, but there were already signs that this process was beginning to emerge, and it will be interesting to see whether it has further developed next season.

There is not much more one can say about the champions: they looked confident, relaxed, aggressive and error-free when it really mattered (at the start of each game); they play increasingly well as a pair, rather than a pair of highly talented individuals, and have a clear plan of campaign. Perhaps the most telling fact of the day emerged in the pub afterwards: Seb had been worried by a nagging sharp back pain for three weeks, and Tom had hurt his hip in the semi-final, after a collision with Ed Taylor, and was still very aware of the injury during play on the day: if they can achieve such a comprehensive victory in these circumstances, all of their opponents must fear what might happen when they are fully fit.

S.Cooley & T.Dunbar (1) beat J.Ho & R.Houlden (2) 3-0 (12-4, 12-6, 12-1)

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