Under 25s 2018: Houlden & Bracken Extend Their Dominance
24/09/18: The traditional season opener at Eton yesterday - the U25 tournament in association with Advanta Wealth - produced a fourth and fifth victory in a row for Riki Houlden and Phoebe Bracken respectively, both with new partners and first time winners this year in Andrew Rennie and Marjolaine Briscoe.
On a day that started under dark skies and torrential rain and finished in glorious sunshine, the Fives was never anything other than bright and sunny throughout. The women's competition suffered slightly from some late withdrawals and the unavailability of the Shrewsbury school contingent, but the five pairs who did make it produced an excellent tournament with some close matches and splendid play.
Old Cholmeleians Phoebe Bracken and Marjolaine Briscoe were a class apart and head and shoulders above the rest of the field, breezing through the competition, never conceding more than four points in a game and not really needing to engage any of their higher gears to take the trophy. Both looked in fine form, cutting fiercely, moving well and finishing decisively. The Highgate school pair of Mia Barry & Emma Williets played impressively, showing their continued improvement, to be the best of the rest but were unable to prevent Phoebe winning a fifth successive U25 title (with a possible five more before she becomes ineligible!) with a third different partner as Oxford student Marjolaine claimed her first U25 success, becoming the first woman to hold the U21, U25, Universities and Universities Mixed title simultaneously. The other three pairs in the competition were all well matched and produced some excellent games between them, Francesca Turnbull & Pippa Ball coming third and Alice Stables & Sasha Howgate sharing the spoils in their match against Emily O'Malley & Erin Leatherbarrow but shading fourth place on points difference.
There were one or two big names missing from the men's tournament, but not many as a high quality field fought it out for the John Rimer trophy. Riki Houlden was bidding for a fourth consecutive win - with a fourth different partner in Aldenhamian Andrew Rennie - to move within one of Andrew Joyce's record of five wins in this competition. Out to stop him were a strong Salopian contingent in Guy Williams & Jack Flowers and Henry Lewis and 2016 and 2017 runner-up Sam Welti, as well as North Oxford's Nathan Turnbull & Noah Caplin, Berkhamstedians Charlie Nicholls & Matt Dight, Westminsters Shail Shah & Kotka Lim and Hugo Young & Can Koksal, the Ravi brothers from St.Olave's and Highgate youngsters Ivan Apukhtin & George Everett. With players from Rossall (Phil Wilkinson), QEB (Akhil Shah), KES (Stephen Thatcher), Zuoz (Marc Tavra), St.Bart's (Will Seath), Royal Holloway (Ollie Avery) and City of London (Sajaan Shah & Nick Choustikov) also in action, it was nice to see a wide cross-section of the Fives world represented.
The group stages went largely to form, with Houlden & Rennie and Welti & Lewis winning their groups in relative comfort. Flowers & Williams beat Nicholls & Dight to claim top spot in Group C, while qualification was closest and toughest in Group A, with a three way tie for two qualifying places between Ravi & Ravi, Shah & Lim and Apukhtin & Everett. The Highgate youngsters were the unlucky pair to miss out on points difference, but they went on make up for their disappointment by winning the plate in the afternoon, winning all of their matches and finishing ahead of Thatcher & Tavra in second place, the KES/Zuoz pair having missed out in the play-off for the final quarter-final place at the hands of Young & Koksal.
Young & Koksal unsurprisingly found Houlden & Rennie too hot to handle in the first quarter-final, although they did manage to find a crisp-related weakness in Rennie's back court game to win at least one of their points. Shah & Lim never got going against Williams & Flowers and went down rather tamely, whlie the Ravis finally found the form that had perhaps been missing earlier in the day, pulling back a large deficit against Welti & Lewis before losing 15-12. The fourth quarter-final was perhaps the game of the day with Berkhamstedians Nicholls & Dight up against last year's Cambridge captain Nathan Turnbull and current Oxford student Noah Caplin. This was a terrific encounter, with Nicholls looking to dominate on the volley around the buttress and Caplin proving an awkward customer with his unorthodox left-handed angles and agile retrieving. With Turnbull & Dight both playing solidly, the result was in doubt right to the end as the North Oxford pair let slip a 14-11 lead with a couple of nervy misses. The Berkhamsted duo had a chance to take it themselves at 14-14 before Turnbull & Caplin eventually converted game ball to claim their place in the semi-finals, a fine achievement.
Nathan & Noah continued their strong form into the first game of the semi-final against Houlden & Rennie, but the top seeds were simply too classy and too accurate, asserting their dominance more and more as the match went on to win 12-6, 12-2 in a game notable for the agility and retrieving of all four players and the number of lengthy rallies. By way of contrast, the other semi-final was a typically high-octane attacking-volleying Salopian shoot out, with both the ball and the players noticably higher above the floor for most of the match compared to the court next door. The nature of playing such an aggressive attacking game is that if one pair manages to get on top, the game can go away from the other pair pretty quickly and once Welti & Lewis had gained the advantage in the first to win 12-5, they raced through the second game 12-1.
For the third year in a row, then, Sam Welti came up against Riki Houlden in the final of this competition, which was watched by a sizable crowd, enjoying both the sunshine and the top quality Fives on offer. Initially, the final looked like it might be a one-sided affair with Houlden & Rennie in full control of the first game, returning well, controlling the rallies and forcing a series of mistakes from the Salopian pair as they tried and failed to impose their high risk attacking strategy, going down 4-12 pretty swiftly. The choice facing Sam & Henry was simple - either change the gameplan or implement the current one better and it was no surprise that they went for the latter option. Right from the start of the second game, the difference was obvious - Welti & Lewis were still attacking hard but it was now more accurate and precise and therefore more threatening. Crucially, their comeback was also underpinned by an improvement in the set piece, with better returning putting the Houlden & Rennie cut and rally play under pressure and some mistakes beginning to come from Riki & Andrew that simply weren't there in the first game. A purple patch took Sam & Henry into the lead in the second game, a lead which they never relinquished, taking the game to nine to level the match and into a decider.
The stage was set: could Sam & Henry successfuly continue to tread the high risk attacking tightrope or could Riki & Andrew regain their grip and start forcing the mistakes again? The Salopian pair started the third game as they had finished the second, returning cuts and volleying aggressively to move into a 5-2 lead. Suddenly, however, it all changed in a flash. Rennie & Houlden found the cut returning consistency that had been eluding them, the winners that had been flowing from the gloves of Welti & Lewis suddenly started going down or out and in the space of a couple of hands 2-5 had turned into 12-5 and the match was over.
Impressive as Riki's achievement is in winning four U25 titles in a row with different partners (with power to add one more next year maybe?) it was particularly pleasing to see Andrew Rennie win his first national age group title, the first Aldenhamian to do so for many moons* and especially fitting as the U25 trophy was donated by and is named after John Rimer, himself an Old Aldenhamian.
Our thanks go to Advanta Wealth for their support, to George Thomason and Eton for hosting the tournament, to Chris Lumbard for filming the men's final and to all those who came along and played, making it such a successful day.
*unless you count Grandad Graham in the Over 50s of course!
R.Houlden & A.Rennie beat C.Koksal & H.Young 15-3
N.Turnbull & N.Caplin beat C.Nicholls & M.Dight 15-14
G.Williams & J.Flowers beat S.Shah & K.Lim 15-1
S.Welti & H.Lewis beat H.Ravi & J.Ravi 15-12
R.Houlden & A.Rennie beat N.Turnbull & N.Caplin 2-0 (12-6, 12-2)
S.Welti & H.Lewis beat G.Williams & J.Flowers 2-0 (12-4, 12-1)
R.Houlden & A.Rennie beat S.Welti & H.Lewis 2-1 (12-4, 9-12, 12-5)
1. I.Apukhtin & G.Everett
2. M.Tavra & S.Thatcher
3. A.Shah & P.Wilkinson
4. W.Seath & O.Avery
5. N.Choustikov & S.Shah
P.Bracken & M.Briscoe beat M.Barry & E.Williets 2-0 (12-4, 12-1)
3. P.Ball & F.Turnbull
4. A.Stables & S.Howgate
5. E.Leatherbarrow & E.O'Malley