World Cup Glory For Team GB
16/08/18: Following on from the voyage of discovery that was the 2017 Coupe du Monde de Paume Artignoscaise, the same group of Eton Fives players - plus a couple of reinforcements - returned to Artignosc-sur-Verdon last weekend for a second crack at World Cup glory.
The majority of the team knew what to expect this time around and on arrival in the village for practice on Wednesday morning were greeted like old friends. In the build up to the competition the court is in virtually constant use from first thing in the morning to last thing at night with young and old, local and foreigner alike joining in to play a continuous series of games of paume, teaming up in pairs to hit the used tennis ball with bare hands against the walls of the village church. For much of the summer, this is the centre of village life: passers by stop to watch, villagers meander, pausing for a chat or a drink at the bar and the waiting players relax and joke around the square.
The tournament itself attracts others from beyond the village of Artignosc as well as the Eton Fives contingent. Last year we met a small group of pelota players from Grasse, a 100 minute drive away down towards Nice and the coast - a real south-eastern outpost for a predominantly south-western sport. This year we headed down to Grasse on the Thursday to find out more; there we were treated royally, fed, watered and shown the different varieties of pelota played there. Outdoors is the "fronton", an enormous wall (although not enormous enough for Seb not to hit two balls over the top of it into the nearby undergrowth) where the club plays Basque pelota with wooden bats and a small, fast, bouncy ball. The fronton is also used for Provençal pelota, a three-a-side bare-handed handball game rarely played these days and kept alive mainly thanks to the efforts of one or two diehard enthusiasts at the Grasse club. The afternoon was spent indoors on the "trinquet", an indoor court - also for the Basque version of the game - which resembles a real tennis court (a penthouse, galleries, the rough size and shape) without a net, with both pairs striking the ball against the end wall and using the whole court to play in. A handball version is also played indoors on the trinquet and with the rain hammering down outside, the afternoon was spent playing a mini-tournament, which was won by Harry Asquith & Idrys Hassnaoui-Haeuw. More food and drink inevitably followed before our return to base back up in the hills of the Var region.
The nine members of Team GB there already were joined on Friday by Nick & Michele Shaw for some kayaking down the spectacular gorges of the Verdon river before an evening return to Artignosc for some final paume practice and the first of three successive late nights eating at the Auberge and listening to the Gala Swing Quartet, half of whom happened to be the previous year's paume world champions.
Saturday saw the start of the tournament proper. Team GB's sartorial elegance last year had inspired the organisers to produce t-shirts of their own this year; with the pressure on to raise the bar, the team delivered with a magnificent light blue number, with a hand drawn sketch of the Artignosc church on the back. Once again these became the hot fashion ticket of the weekend, with the spare shirts hugely in demand.
The tournament itself is a logistical headache for the orgasiners, with over 50 pairs taking part and only one court. It is testament to the hard work and planning that went into the weekend that things went so smoothly and such a huge number of matches got played pretty much to time. The one advantage is that no-one really minds the hanging around, in fact it's a hugely pleasurable experience. The atmosphere is lively and friendly, there is the opportunity to practice one's French, the food keeps coming and the drink keeps flowing. Risking frostbite and exposure while waiting for a court to become available at the Northern Tournament in February it is not. The format was slightly different to last year, with no pairs seeded out and 16 groups (including two for the women's pairs) battling it out to produce 32 qualifiers. By Sunday lunchtime, and following the traditional Saturday night dinner in the square, Team GB had done themselves proud: both women's pairs - Karen Hird & Charlotta Cooley and Harry Asquith & Mandie Barnes - had won their groups with a perfect 4/4 win record, last year's quarter-finalists Seb Cooley & Nick Shaw had cruised through unbeaten and the other two pairs - Gareth & Tom Hoskins and Ian Mitchell & Ralph Morgan - had qualified in second place in their groups, losing only to seeded pairs. Gareth & Tom bowed out in the Last 32, but not before taking part in a tremendous match against paume legend Patrick Bianchi and his grandson Abel, which the local pair eventually won 10-8. Ian & Ralph were unfortunate to come up against Nick & Seb, which meant that last year's surprise packets were once again the last British representatives in the main competition. The two women's pairs lost their Last 16 matches in the main tournament (the women's semis doubled as Last 32 matches for the open) but would be back for the Ladies final later on.
Nick & Seb had a comfortable passage through the Last 16 before the final eight pairs were put back in the hat for a random quarter-final draw. The British pair's reputation had been forged last year in their astonishing victory over the 2016 champions Fabien Aillaud and Mathias Constans so it seemed somehow inevitable that they would be paired again for a rematch. The other matches in the last eight were all hotly contested and watched with interest but there was really only one match that everyone wanted to see. The square was packed out with spectators anxious to see if the French champions could take their revenge on their English conquerors and with Fabien back to full fitness this year the expectation was that Nick & Seb would find life difficult this time around. With commentator Félix informing the crowd that if they lost again, Fabien and Mathias might as well take up badminton the pressure was well and truly on; the French pair started well, with Fabien looking dangerous on the right hand side, lining up some deadly shots into the drainpipe/postbox area. As happened last year, though, Nick & Seb's fast game matched up well against the skilful, powerful but less mobile French pair. Seb began to nullify the threat of Fabien on the right and play a few smart winners of his own while Nick was running rings around Mathias, who found himself pushed deeper and deeper on the left-hand side and under more and more pressure, with the mistakes inevitably following. The Brits hit the lead halfway through the game and although there was a late comeback from the French pair, Nick & Seb held on to make it through to the semis.
Last year saw Nick & Seb unable to follow up their victory over Fabien & Mathias but this year they were determined to keep going. Now more experienced and with a better grasp of what tactics might be effective, they produced an absolutely magnificent performance in their semi-final against the much younger pair of Victor Negrel & Rémi Leusch. The French pair got off to a fine start, with Victor producing a dominant, wonderfully agile and accurate performance on the right-hand side and Rémi a picture of determination on the left. Nick & Seb had to think on their feet and quickly realised that their best chance was to keep the ball away from the imperious Victor and try and break down Rémi on the left. Rally after rally saw the ball fired deep to the left and retrieved, sometimes with interest but eventually the tactic began to pay off and the British pair regained parity and then went into a lead which they never relinquished, although the French pair again came close at the end.
All of this meant that the last two matches of the tournament - the women's and men's World Cup finals - would feature three British and one French pair. First up was the all British women's final, with Karen Hird & Charlotta Cooley against Harry Asquith & Mandie Barnes. Back home on an Eton Fives court, you would be pretty confident of predicting the result of that match, but this was different. Karen had already shown herself to be lethally accurate - especially around the doorframe - if given time and space, but Charlotta was taking a little longer to find her bearings and struggling to generate the necessary power at times. Mandie had the experience of last year to draw on and Harry was proving the revelation of the women's tournament, her confidence high after her win in Grasse and her power and speed perfectly suited to the demands of paume. The final started with a flurry of winners from Harry, dominating the court and sending her pair out into a 5-0 lead. Karen & Charlotta had no choice but to try and keep the ball away from her and play on Mandie. They did begin to get themselves back into the game, but Mandie fought back and produced a few winners of her own, finding the killer shot into the drainpipe on more than one occasion. Gradually, though, and with Harry becoming more and more of a frustrated bystander on the left and having to move well out of position to try and intercept on a couple of occasions, Karen & Charlotta got on top and came through at the end to win 15-13.
The last game of the afternoon was the Open World Cup final, with Nick & Seb taking on Max Bodinar and Hugo Cincione, a young pair also in their first final and sporting spectacular matching kit of pink flamingo socks, shorts and vests. The final was played to 21 and was a magnificent match, a battle of tactics, fitness, agility, power, accuracy and teamwork with neither pair able to establish clear water. As with Victor in the semi-final, Hugo was proving a deadly accurate finisher on the right, too much even for Seb's astonishing powers of recovery if given time and space. As in the semi-final, the British pair looked to push the left-sided player, Max, deep and wide, trying to exhaust him and force mistakes or open up space down the middle. This worked well enough and kept the Brits in close contention, but ultimately it was Max who had the final word, hitting two magnificent unreturnable winners from deep on the left into the doorframe to take his pair from 19-18 to 21-18 and victory. It wasn't quite to be for Nick & Seb in the end then, but they had performed superbly all day and their play and sportsmanship were both hugely admired by the large home crowd. And by next year we'll all be more or less locals anyway.
As you can imagine, the evening following the conclusion of the tournament was very quiet. No pastis was drunk, no-one jumped in the fountain, no minors were still playing paume with Fives and tennis balls against the church wall after midnight and no members of Team GB - senior or otherwise - were seen wearing glowstick earrings. Perhaps we'll do that next year...
Thanks to all the members of Team GB, all of our splendid supporters and to all of our friends in Grasse and Artignosc who made it such a memorable trip.