A record entry of 28 players gathered at Highgate for the fourth edition of the Westminster Cup on Sunday. The competition was split into two pools of seven pairs:
In Group A, Ed Rose and Alex Wessely swiftly established themselves as contenders for the final, racking up three comfortable victories. Matching them stride for stride however were Neil Margerison (who narrowly missed out on the final last year) and recent school leaver Alistair Stewart. The two pairs met in a crucial tie in round 5 which, for drama, was probably the match of the day. Rose in particular stormed out of the blocks as he and Wessely established a 6-0 and 8-4 lead over their apparently shell-shocked opponents. When that lead became 9-6, with step set at 9, the match appeared over. However, Margerison's change in tactic for the return of cut provided the impetus for a remarkable run of 4 straight points to clinch a dramatic 10-9 win.
Rose and Wessely suffered further heartache in their following match, losing again 10-9 to John Reynolds and schoolboy Nathan Malik. Reynolds and Malik had earlier lost 10-7 to last year's winner Adam Robinow and the impressive Elana Osen, appearing in her first Westminster Cup. Reynolds and Malik therefore had to beat Margerison and Stewart in their final match to have any hope of topping the group. However, buoyed by their comeback win, Neil and Alistair were inspired, barely missing a shot as they raced to a 10-2 win to secure their place in the final.
In Group B, Giles Coren and guest Joe Swiers, returning to the game after a 15 year absence, got into their stride after a slightly slow start to win their first four games, before suffering a surprise narrow 10-9 loss to Riki Houlden and Olivia Prankerd-Smith. That loss opened the door for the group's other stand-out pair, Sam Williams and schoolboy Sahil Shah, who had laboured to narrow victories in the first two matches but, like Coren and Swiers, had improved over the course of the afternoon. The two pairs met in the penultimate round of matches and with Williams playing aggressively and Shah acquitting himself well in support the match was nip and tuck up to 6-6. At that stage however Coren and Swiers stepped up their game, forcing errors from the younger pair, and taking the match 10-6.
Williams and Shah were left to rely on George Illingworth and Chris Watts to do them a favour in the final round, but Giles and Joe were too strong and despite a late fight-back prevailed 10-7 to top the group. Mention must be made of a strong performance by Shaneil Patel and Ed Miles, who finished third in the group, having suffered only two narrow 10-8 defeats against the top two pairs.
The final was the best of all four years in terms of quality and was a pleasure to watch. Coren and Swiers began the match at a trademark fast pace, returning cut well and volleying aggressively to establish an early 5-3 lead. However, as they had done all afternoon, Margerison and Stewart improved as the match went on. Alistair in particular showed superb agility and determination around the court, as well as impressive nerve under pressure, to produce some excellent retrieves and extract errors from their tiring opponents and level the match at 8-8. From there, Margerison came to the fore, showing all his experience and touch at the front of the court to take him and Alistair to the brink of victory. Giles and Joe resisted, saving two match points, but fittingly Neil finished the match with an accurate volley into the corner of the buttress to give him and Alistair victory 12-8.
The quality of the fives throughout the whole afternoon was undoubtedly the highest it has been in all four years and I am delighted that the tournament appears to be going from strength to strength. I would like to thank everyone for taking part and hope that it proved an enjoyable day, as well as evening for those who came to the excellent dinner afterwards.
Roll on next year!