Universities Mixed 2016: Roses Are Red, Trophies Are Dark Blue
15/02/16: What better way to spend Valentine's Day than playing mixed Fives? None according to the pairs who made it to Highgate on Sunday for the 2016 edition of the Universities Mixed pairs tournament. There were representatives from Liverpool, Durham, UCL, City, Cambridge and four pairs from Oxford - a reflection of the strength in numbers of the Oxford club this year.
Mixed Fives puts a real premium on the ability of the female player, particularly in terms of cutting and returning and the field was neatly split between established stars of the women's game and rapidly improving newcomers; with a wide spread of ability across their male partners the stage was set for some intriguing matches. The morning group stages were fiercely contested: ante-post favourites James Piggot and Izzy Watts of Oxford dominated Group B, with UCL's Harriet Asquith and Andrew Ibbetson finishing second. The other three pairs were closely matched, with Oxford's Sam Oppenheimer and Martha Samano clinching third place with wins over Cambridge's Nathan Tunbull and Susanna Xu and in the Oxford derby against Jack Flowers and Frankie Crossley.
Group A was incredibly tight, although perennial contenders Alice Brett and Aroop Bhattacharya of Liverpool kept their nerve and overcame Aroop's cramp to come top. The Cambridge/City combination of Nina Sorensen and Anthony Kane didn't win any matches but pushed all three of the other pairs hard. This left the final qualifying spot to be decided between Sarah Frost and Alex Tansey of Durham and Alice Stables and Sam Welti of Oxford/Oxford Brookes. This was a fascinating match as the dynamics of the two pairings and the Wiseman mixed rule where the man can only serve once before being automatically cut down made for an enthralling tactical battle. Alice Stables, in only her second season of Fives, had to adapt quickly to a much higher pace of game than she was used to as the formidable Sarah Frost - part of the winning Durham pair in the ladies Universities tournament before Christmas - tried to dominate and stop Welti, the strongest player on court, nipping in to help his partner out and get the Oxford pair on top. Sarah's partner Alex Tansey, back on his home courts, was looking to be as steady and consistent as possible, get his cuts in and help Sarah keep Welti out of the game as much as possible. The Durham pair succeeded in the first game, winning 12-8 with a crucial run of returns from Sarah towards the end of the game. The second game was very different, however, with Alice adjusting to the speed of the game and having some notable success returning cuts from under the wall as Alex in particular struggled to find his cutting line and length into the buttress. This opened up the court for Sam to dominate and crucially to be able to string runs of points together and the Durham pair had no answer as the Oxford duo won the second to 6 to clinch the semi-final spot on points difference.
The first semi-final was another all Oxford affair. Welti and Stables continued to perform well, with Alice in particular showing a huge improvement during the course of the day, but James and Izzy looked to be forming a formidable partnership as they won relatively comfortably without ever having to engage top gear. The other semi-final looked incredibly close on paper as Liverpool's Brett and Bhattacharya tried to break their semi-final hoodoo in this competition and finally make it through to the last two. The match was a near repeat of last year's semi-final with Andrew Ibbetson stepping in for James Tugwell as Harriet's partner. The first game was a replica of last year's as the UCL pair won easily. As happened last year, the Liverpool pair hit back in the second taking it all the way to 10-10 and within three points of taking it to a decider. Harriet stepped up at this point and delivered a couple of superb cut returns in a row to take UCL to match point before finishing things off at the first available opportunity and dash the hopes of Alice and Aroop for the third successive year at the semi-final stage.
It would be unfair to describe the final as an anti-climax and the standard of the Fives was tremendous, but the result was never really in doubt as Oxford took the trophy for the first time ever, Watts's attacking game and Piggot's class giving them the edge from start to finish despite a valiant effort from the UCL pair, who performed with great credit. The standard was particularly noteworthy as three out of the four participants only started playing Eton Fives at University, with Andrew coming from a Rugby Fives background and Izzy and Harriet both having learned the game at Iffley Road. Mind you, having been students for a combined total of thirteen years, they've had long enough to work out how to play the game!
The plate was as keenly contested as ever with some terrific games. Cambridge's Turnbull and Xu recorded their first victory with a shock preliminary round win over Kane and Sorensen, before losing the first semi-final to Oppenheimer and the fast-improving Samano. Durham prevented an all-Oxford plate final with a win over Flowers and Crossley but were unable to repeat the dose in the final, going down 15-11 to Sam and Martha in an exciting and close game.
Kane and Sorensen managed to regroup before the start of Plate B and found their best form of the day, defeating Flowers & Crossley and then gaining revenge for their earlier defeat at the hands of Turnbull & Xu to claim victory.
My thanks go to Susy Prosser-Harries and Anthony Brunner at Highgate for allowing us to use the courts and to all those who travelled to Highgate - especially those who came long distances to be there - to take part in what was another excellent tournament.
Oxford 1 (I.Watts & J.Piggot) beat Oxford 2 (A.Stables & S.Welti) 2-0 (12-7, 12-4)
UCL (H.Asquith & A.Ibbetson) beat Liverpool (A.Brett & A.Bhattacharya) 2-0 (12-6, 13-10)
Oxford 1 beat UCL 2-0 (12-7, 12-8)
Oxford 3 (M.Samano & S.Oppenheimer) beat Durham (S.Frost & A.Tansey) 15-11
1. Cambridge/City (N.Sorensen & A.Kane)
2. Oxford 4 (F.Crossley & J.Flowers)
3. Cambridge (S.Xu & N.Turnbull)