Under 21s: All The Young Dudes
01/02/16: The 2016 Under 21 tournament took place at Eton yesterday and was an absolute cracker, with heroes everywhere. The star man of the men's tournament was James Piggot along with his Dark Blue partner James Cobb who responded well under pressure to beat Cambridge opponents Riki Houlden and Alistair Stewart in an absorbing final, having them dancing in the street in Oxford until late into the night. The ladies tournament featured a wide range of players from the experienced Highgate girls down to some promising youngsters and even absolute beginners from Shrewsbury and Oxford. There were no changes at the top of the order, though, with a repeat of last year's result in another all-Highgate final, Phoebe Bracken and Amira Reimer beating Marjolaine Briscoe and Carolina Valensise.
The men's tournament featured the usual mixture of top quality schoolboy players and some of the best university pairs and recent school leavers. The morning group stages were hard fought with Highgate U16 pair Oliver Light and James Hopkins impressing as they took the runners-up spot in Group A behind Oxford University's Old Etonian duo James Piggot and James Cobb. Berkhamsted's Milo Skelton and Charlie Nicholls were the third qualifiers. OC Daniel Light and current Highgate player Max Holdsworth pushed Andrew Rennie and Tom Gallagher hard in Group C and those two pairs also made it through to the last eight, where they were joined by fellow Cholmeleians Mario Andrejevic and Andre Tejuoso, who made it through in Group B behind Old Salopians Guy Williams and Sansom Yick and Cambridge's Old Westminsters Riki Houlden and Alistair Stewart. Houlden and Stewart edged the group decider against Williams and Yick 15-13 to give themselves a slightly more favourable draw in the knockout stages.
Cobb and Piggot looked strong in their quarter-final, defeating Andrejevic and Tejuoso 15-4 and Houlden and Stewart saw off the challenge of Holdsworth and Light 15-8. Nicholls and Skelton put in a fine performance to take Rennie and Gallagher deep into the game before bowing out and the final semi-final slot was taken by the Highgate youngsters Light and Hopkins, who put in an inspired performance to knock out Williams and Yick 15-11. This earned them another shot at Cobb and Piggot in the first semi-final and once again the younger pair performed with great speed and skill, showing the ability that will make them pre-tournament favourites for the U16 title at the schools' championships this year. Cobb and Piggot are a high-quality and experienced pair, however, and having ridden the early Highgate storm they began to impose themselves on their younger opponents and dictate the play, eventually winning 12-5, 12-2.
The other semi-final pitted two new pairings together. Old Aldenhamian Rennie and young Olavian Tom Gallagher - a finalist in the London tournament alongside James Toop before Christmas - were always behind in the first game against defending champion Houlden and his new partner Stewart (Riki's usual Cambridge partner Tony Barker now a year too old for this competition), the Cambridge pair's speed and accuracy into the buttress forcing mistakes from their opponents. Having lost the first game, Rennie adopted a more unorthodox tactical approach at the start of the second. Andrew was moving forward from the back court to take a big swing at a waist high mid-court ball; at exactly the same time, Alistair was on the top step, turning round to see what was happening behind him and then get back into position. The result was inevitable, the ball suddenly irrelevant as the Rennie glove swung into the Stewart "midriff" in a scene reminiscent of the famous David "Bumble" Lloyd / Jeff Thomson incident in the 1974-75 Ashes. With Stewart writhing in agony on the floor of the court and everyone else trying very hard not to laugh too loudly, a ten minute hiatus was required. Once proceedings got underway again it was clear that Rennie's below the belt tactics hadn't worked as Houlden and Stewart picked up where they had left off to win the second game 12-2 and claim their spot in the final.
The final was an intriguing match-up with implications beyond the destiny of the U21 trophy; Houlden and Barker are potential opponents for Cobb and Piggot in the Varsity Match in a few weeks time, so a win, or possibly even a narrow defeat, could score some important psychological points for Cambridge ahead of that encounter. The Light Blue pair certainly warmed to their task in the first game, with Stewart - the most untried of the four players at this level - stepping up impressively and combining well with his Cambridge captain Houlden. The Westminster pair seemed to be a bit more sprightly at the end of a gruelling day and their speed around the court, excellent returning and accurate grounstrokes kept Cobb and Piggot under pressure and behind on the scoreboard for the majority of the fist game. It took a mixture of fight, a couple of mini-runs of points, one or two badly timed unforced errors from the Cambridge pair and a little bit of luck for Cobb and Piggot to sneak the first game 13-12 and this turned out to be crucial. The Cambridge pair continued to play well, but a little bit of their self-belief had gone with the loss of the first game. The Oxford boys, on the other hand, had gained in confidence and began to show their class, Cobb moving better and reeling off a succession of attacking volleys and Piggot producing his unique brand of insouciant virtuosity, plucking the ball out of the air from nowhere and producing some bewildering left-handed angles. They took the second game 12-6, becoming the first Oxford pair to win the tournament since its inception in 2010.
The ladies tournament had a couple of late withdrawals but still had eight fine pairs there to fight it out for the trophy. Serial winners Phoebe Bracken and Amira Reimer from Highgate are an outstanding pair and were able to cruise through the competition unchallenged; their closest opponents were the Highgate second string of Marjolaine Briscoe and Carolina Valensise, who can take some comfort in their excellent semi-final win over Rosie Parr and Francesca Turnbull and in the fact that they doubled their points tally in the final compared to last year.
Further down the ranks, there were some fantastic games between some very well-matched pairs. The top Shrewsbury School pair of Sophia Breese and Lizzie Ware did terrifically well to make it into the last four, while Izzy Wong and Libby Hedges had an epic series of games against Highgate's Gemma Smith-Bingham and Emma Willets, losing 12-7, 12-11 in the group stages before exacting revenge later on with an extraordinary 12-4, 5-12, 12-11 win in the final of the plate. Oxford's Alice Stables and Martha Samano showed the considerable strides that they are making and the final Shrewsbury pair of Sophie Cormack and Claire Richards also showed great promise.
My thanks go to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the competition, to Richard Black and Mark Williams for presenting the trophies, to Anthony Brunner and Andy Barnard for their support, to all the parents who came along to watch and to all the players who contributed to such an excellent day's Fives.
P.Bracken & A.Reimer beat S.Breese & L.Ware 12-0, 12-0
M.Briscoe & C.Valensise beat R.Parr & F.Turnbull 12-6, 12-4
P.Bracken & A.Reimer beat M.Briscoe & C.Valensise 12-7, 12-1
I.Wong & L.Hedges beat E.Willets & G.Smith-Bingham 12-4, 5-12, 12-11
J.Cobb & J.Piggot beat M.Andrejevic & A.Tejuoso 15-4
O.Light & J.Hopkins beat G.Williams & S.Yick 15-11
R.Houlden & A.Stewart beat M.Holdsworth & D.Light 15-8
A.Rennie & T.Gallagher beat C.Nicholls & M.Skelton 15-10
J.Cobb & J.Piggot beat O.Light & J.Hopkins 12-5, 12-2
R.Houlden & A.Stewart beat A.Rennie & T.Gallagher 12-6, 12-2
J.Cobb & J.Piggot beat R.Houlden & A.Stewart 13-12, 12-6
A.Baleanu & D.Marshall