Black To Black Wins For North Oxford
12/11/18: In an exciting sporting weekend, some will have gone for England v New Zealand at Twickenham as their highlight. For some it will have been the Manchester derby while a few might even have opted for the tennis at the O2 or the Brazilian grand prix. Anyone living in Wigan, St.Helens or parts of Solihull might even have chosen the Rugby League. For those who consider themselves to be the real sporting cognoscenti, however, the only game in town was the tenth anniversary Richard Black Cup at Eton, in association with Advanta Wealth.
The build up to the tournament could perhaps best be described as rather fraught and somewhat chaotic. The final entry, while still healthy enough, was slightly down on previous years with the drop out rate - of individual players, pairs, teams and parts of teams - in the days preceding the tournament reaching unprecedented levels. Hopefully next year we will see full teams from Berkhamsted, Cambridge University, Westminster and the Old Salopians, although the organiser would certainly settle for people telling him in advance whether they were coming or not and then sticking to that!
A further complication was then added by the Shrewsbury minibus breaking down on the M40 near High Wycombe (the stuff of recurrent nightmares for Stubbsy). Thankfully, they were able to get back on the road after a delay of around an hour, with a rejig of the draw allowing them to sit out the first round and them then arriving just in time to get stuck into Round 2.
With seven teams this year, the format returned to one large group phase, with all of the teams playing each other across three pairs in one game to 15. The tournament organiser was struggling to find enough legs to cope with all the various camps he had a foot in, switching hats (or perhaps that should be shoes to avoid mixing metaphors) between being North Oxford club captain, EFA Secretary, Old Ipswichian and Oxford University coach depending on who he was watching at the time.
Despite the absentees, the standard was high and the Fives both exciting and played in great spirit, with plenty of close matches and lots of opportunities for the younger or less experienced players to learn and improve during the course of the competition. Oxford University - with the majority of their big hitters unavailable - were definitely in the "inexperienced and there to learn" category but put in good performances all day, their results rarely reflecting the effort put in and the improvement shown as the competition progressed. The two young Highgate teams had a tough reputation to live up to, playing in this competition for the first time without either ladies finalist Emily Scoones or any of the "Golden Generation" who won the tournament five years in a row from 2012-2016 and while they showed that there is still plenty of talent at the school, they never quite got themselves in contention for a place in the final.
That left four teams battling it for the top two places - Shrewsbury, Ipswich, the EFA and defending champions North Oxford. An early 2-1 win over Ipswich for North Oxford put them in pole position and similar results over their other two main rivals put last year's winners top of the group standings. The matches between the other three teams were all nip and tuck, with the finishing order uncertain right up until the final round, which saw Ipswich close out a 3-0 win over Highgate 1, while Shrewsbury were unable to get more than one point from North Oxford, meaning that the final would see a repeat of the first match of the day between the two sides led by ladies champions Karen Hird and Charlotta Cooley.
There was a friendly but slightly tense period before the start of the final as the two rival captains tried to second-guess their opponents' pairings for the final. Ipswich had stuck with the same combinations all day - Charlotta & Eloise Carter at first pair, Charlotte Gregory & Louise Rymell at second and Natasha Gregory & Nadia Mason at third and they decided to go with that again. North Oxford had adopted a more mix and match policy with different combinations of Harry Asquith, Rachel Wood, Faye Kerr and Francesca Turnbull moving up to partner Karen at first pair or down to partner Mandie Barnes at third. In the morning match between the two, Karen & Harry had won convincingly at first pair and they went with that combination again, the change coming at third pair - won by Ipswich first time round - with Rachel partnering Mandie and Faye moving up to play with Francesca at second pair.
Three things quickly became clear as the final started - firstly with Eloise & Charlotta playing much more strongly than in the morning, the first pair game was not going to be the same one-sided contest as before, secondly the move to put Rachel at third pair looked to be a good one as she immediately took control of that particular match and thirdly the second pair was going to be extremely close with two well-matched pairs fighting it out. It was first blood to North Oxford as Rachel & Mandie won their match 12-6, 12-7; special mention should go, however, to the young Ipswich third pair of Nadia Mason & Natasha Gregory, who produced some absolutely magnificent Fives during the course of the day, often against older and more experienced opponents, with Natasha becoming the youngest player ever to play in the final of the Black Cup.
That meant that Ipswich needed to win both of the other matches to claim the trophy and there were times when that seemed to be a distinct possibility. The first pair match was a high quality encounter right from the start with the two top players in the ladies game taking each other on, well-supported by Harry and Eloise. The North Oxford pair got in front in the first game and never relinquished the lead, but the Ipswich duo fought back superbly, producing a killer seven point hand in the second game to help level at 1-1. The second pair game was even closer: Charlotte & Louise were ahead for most of the first game against Faye & Francesca but the North Oxford pair stayed within reach and took it to 11-11. The Ipswich pair took the bold option of sudden death and were rewarded with a perfect gameball cut by Louise followed by a good cut return and a fine winner to the back left. As if mirroring the next door court, however, Faye & Francesca fought back hard in the second game, Faye playing more solidly from the back and Francesca playing more aggressively and dynamically, seizing control of the top step and leading her pair to a 12-8 win. One all in both remaining pairs and all to play for.
It would have been a fitting climax to the day if the two deciding games had turned into 15-14 thrillers, but it wasn't to be. Louise & Charlotte played their best Fives of the day to get out in front and stay there, with Charlotte in particular returning cut and volleying into the buttress to great effect, leaving their opponents little opportunity to fight back. By the time the Ipswich second pair hit their winning shot, however, the match was over and the trophy back in North Oxford hands as Karen & Harry cut out the mistakes and reasserted their dominance against Charlotta & Eloise, taking the lead early on and seeing it through without too many alarms to finish off a tournament that had it all - the tension and excitement of Twickenham, the beautiful teamwork on display at the Etihad (not to mention the managerial mind games and touchline posturing), the bling and glamour of the Formula 1 circuit and the sublime court skills of the tennis world tour finals.
Our thanks go to Advanta Wealth for their support, to George Thomason and Eton for hosting the tournament, to Richard Black for supplying and presenting the prizes, to all those who captained and organised teams - Karen Hird, Charlotta Cooley, Ashley Lumbard, Elana Osen, Georgia Allen, Andy Barnard, David Mew, Jack Flowers - and to all those who came and played and made it such an enjoyable day.
Round 1: EFA beat Highgate 2 2-1; Highgate 1 beat Oxford University 3-0; North Oxford beat Ipswich 2-1
Round 2: North Oxford beat Oxford University 3-0; EFA beat Highgate 1 2-1; Shrewsbury beat Highgate 2 3-0
Round 3: EFA beat Oxford University 3-0; Ipswich beat Shrewsbury 2-1; North Oxford beat Highgate 1 3-0
Round 4: Shrewsbury beat Highgate 1 2-1; North Oxford beat EFA 2-1; Ipswich beat Highgate 2 3-0
Round 5: Ipswich beat Oxford University 3-0; Shrewsbury beat EFA 2-1; Highgate 1 beat Highgate 2 2-1
Round 6: Shrewsbury beat Oxford University 3-0; North Oxford beat Highgate 2 3-0; Ipswich beat EFA 2-1
Round 7: Highgate 2 beat Oxford University 2-1; North Oxford beat Shrewsbury 2-1; Ipswich beat Highgate 1 3-0
1. North Oxford 15 points
2. Ipswich 14 points
3. Shrewsbury 12 points
4. EFA 11 points
5. Highgate 1 6 points
6. Highgate 2 4 points
7. Oxford University 1 point
North Oxford beat Ipswich 2-1
K.Hird & H.Asquith beat C.Cooley & E.Carter 2-1 (12-7, 7-12, 12-7)
F.Kerr & F.Turnbull lost to C.Gregory & L.Rymell 1-2 (11-12, 12-8, 5-12)
R.Wood & M.Barnes beat N.Gregory & N.Mason 2-0 (12-6, 12-7)