Oxford Maintain Their Universities Stranglehold
23/10/19: Saturday's Universities tournament at Eton saw Oxford win both men's and women's titles for the fourth successive year.
This year's entry for the Jesters Universities tournament was reasonably healthy, despite the competing distractions of other University sports, work pressure, matriculation, long-distance travel, lack of partner, girlfriends' birthdays and England playing in the rugby. There were several potentially strong pairs that might have been but never quite were - Durham, Birmingham, Exeter and Nottingham for example - but nevertheless there was representation from a good range of universities, with Oxford, Cambridge, Oxford Brookes, LSE, King's, UCL, Royal Holloway, Sheffield, Warwick, Bristol all present and correct. Special mention should go to Royal Holloway and Cambridge, who both provided five pairs for the men's competition, the majority of whom had only taken up the game as students.
The women's competition was only four pairs strong this year, with several Oxford pairs unavailable, Cambridge rebuilding having lost quite a few of last year's team and potential players or pairs from Durham, Birmingham, Imperial, UCL, York, Leicester, Cardiff and Bath not able to make it to Eton. Oxford were represented by defending champion Marjolaine Briscoe and her 2019 Varsity match partner Amelia Hepburn, Cambridge fielded two pairs, with new captain Clara Calderbank partnering Old Olavian fresher Jessye Tu and Becky Diston teaming up with Sze Lynn Tuen. The fourth pair was a London LSE/Royal Holloway combination with Olavian Jacinta Chiang partnering Zuozer Matilda Esse Bianchi. The four pairs played each other in a round robin format, with Oxford head and shoulders above the other three pairs, claiming the title comfortably. Clara & Jessye demonstrated plenty of potential in finishing as clear runners-up and the other two pairs showed promise and improved significantly during the course of the day, benefiting greatly from the experience. In the afternoon, Amelia & Marj went into Plate A in the men's competition, Clara & Jessye into Plate C and the other two pairs battled it out in a best of three match for the ladies plate, London coming out on top two games to nil.
The 19 original pairs in the men's competition were split into four groups for the morning's Fives, knowing that with a few notable absentees (only one pair from the strong Oxford squad putting in an appearance for example as well as some of the universities mentioned above who weren't there) there was an opportunity for some more unheralded pairs to make the knockout stages.
Local rivals Oxford (Oskar Denby & Hugo Young) and Oxford Brookes (Sam Mcloughlin & Hal Gibson-Leitao) both qualified from their groups with relative ease; elsewhere the picture was more complicated as Groups B and C both turned into three way battles. The King's pair of Old Westminster Can Koksal and Old Cholmeleian Jack Ledigo set the early pace in Group B with three comfortable wins but then found themselves up against a Cambridge 1 (Viral Gudiwala & Nick Choustikov) who were fighting for their lives after losing a titanic battle against Royal Holloway 1 (Will Seath & Ollie Avery). In a must win game, the Cambridge pair pushed King's all the way, but a 12-11 win meant King's would top the group with Holloway in second place, sending Cambridge 1 into the plate.
Group C was even closer: LSE 1 (Olavian Sachin Balaji & Cholmeleian Dan Marshall) looked to be in control with a 12-4 win over QM/Imperial (former Cambridge captain Nathan Turnbull & Old Citizen Saajan Shah) but they reckoned without the wild card pairing of Warwick/Bristol (Olavian Vish Shetty & Carthusian Robert Elston), who came within a whisker of beating both of the other two pairs before falling at the final hurdle with two successive 11-12 defeats, those two crucial points the difference between first and third in the group. The quarter-final line-up was completed by the all-Olavian LSE 2 pairing of Swastik Gupta & Arnav Barry and the post-grad UCL combo of Abhishek Bhattacharya - further extending his record number of appearances in the competition - and another ex-Cambridge captain in Phil Wilkinson.
LSE 1 found their best form in the quarter-finals to despatch UCL in emphatic style and the QM/Imperial and Royal Hollway pairs were unable to make much of an impression on Oxford and Oxford Brookes, both of whom were looking ominously strong. The fourth quarter-final was the best of the lot, as Swastik & Arnav for LSE 2 got off to a strong start against King's, leading 9-5 and then 14-12 before Can & Jack clawed their way back to win 15-14 and make it to the last four.
Oskar & Hugo were still in their metaphorical Fives armchairs for the semi-final, as the King's pair's luck finally ran out in a 12-1, 12-4 defeat. Sam & Hal for Brookes on the other side of the draw had to work a bit harder, claiming the first game fairly comfortably 12-4 against Sachin & Dan but having to hold their nerve to take a much closer - and indeed much tetchier - second game 12-9 to set up an Oxford derby in the final.
Not since 2002 have a pair from outside Oxbridge won this competition; the inherent advantage of having their own clubs and courts and regular practice has so far made it impossible for a pair from elsewhere to break this stranglehold, despite appearances in the final in that time from UCL, LSE, York, Leeds and Durham. Oxford Brookes became the latest pair to attempt to overthrow this duopoly and they were able to come at it from the luxury of regular weekly practice on the Oxford courts with their final opponents and the rest of the Oxford squad. Both had also managed to avoid the problem that has affected some previous finalists by having a reasonably straightforward run to the final and therefore both being fresh enough to play their best Fives in the showpiece match.
It was defending champion Oskar Denby and newly crowned Under 25 champion Hugo Young who got off to the stronger start, playing solidly, getting on the front foot, dominating the play and forcing mistakes from Hal & Sam to take a 9-2 lead. It was too late to save the first game, but there were signs as the game went on that Sam & Hal were beginning to find their way, cutting down on the errors, improving their set piece and causing some problems of their own for the Oxford pair. This continued into the second game as the Brookes pair began to grow in confidence, attacking rather than defending and gaining their reward with a 12-6 win over a slighlty rattled Oxford pair to level at 1-1. Going into the decider with momentum, Sam & Hal needed to try and press home their advantage early on but they were unable to do so as Oskar & Hugo fought back well. With Oskar finding a rich vein of cut returning and Hugo finding his range round the walls from the back of the court, Sam & Hal were forced back on the defensive again and this proved to be decisive as the Oxford pair moved away in the second half of the game to take it 12-7 and claim the title for the Dark Blues for the fifth successive year.
This was an excellent end to a fine day's Fives and with several of the leading pairs still available next year - plus hopefully the return/inclusion of some of the other potential top pairs - next year's edition should be a cracker.
One of the delights of having a wide variety of levels of experience in such a tournament is the unpredictable nature of the plate competitions, which were competed for with gusto by the non-qualifying pairs from the group stages along with the top two women's pairs. Plate C settled into a round robin between some of the lower ranked Cambridge and Royal Holloway pairs and never quite reached a comprehensible conclusion due to Cambridge needing to get their transport back to the Fens and Royal Holloway's attention turning towards the post-tournament pub crawl. The best guess would appear to suggest that Alex Butcher & Rupert Swallow (Cambridge 4) outperformed all their competitors to claim the coveted Plate C crown.
The latter stages of Plate A unsurprisingly featured the pairs who had got closest to qualification in the morning group stages. Sheffield (Old Millhillian Lukas Vanhaesebroeck & Rugby Fives player Julian Hanton), having squeaked past Oxford 2 (Marjolaine Briscoe & Amelia Hepburn) in an epic quarter-final, fell at the hands of Cambridge 1 in the semis. In the other half of the draw, Warwick/Bristol proved they did indeed know how to win a foot down point with a 12-5 win over what was originally Cambridge 2 (Arthur Clover & Jivan Navani) but had by this time become Cambridge/Imperial with Saajan Shah subbing in for the injured (?) Jivan. It was entirely fitting - if slightly unfortunate - that Warwick/Bristol's day should finish as it had begun, with Vish & Robert suffering their third defeat of the day at the hands of Viral & Nick in the Plate A final, with all three defeats by the same margin of 12-11, in what was an excellent contest and perhaps some small consolation for Cambridge not making it out of the group stages.
Not to be forgotten, Plate B - for the Plate A quarter-final losers (keep up at the back) - was also reaching a thrilling conclusion. Newcomer Dan Bacon, in only his second outing onto a Fives court, and ex-Lancing player Henry Lyle were unknown quantities at the start of the day and were therefore entered as Cambridge 5. They then proceeded to demolish Cambridge 4 12-1 in the first round of Plate A, lose narrowly 12-10 to Cambridge 1 in the next round, see off the impressive Marj & Amelia in the Plate B semis and then overcome Cambridge 3 (Harshal Kalaiya & George Poole) 12-10 in the final. Definitely ones to watch!
My thanks go to the Jesters for providing the crucial sponsorship that pays for the players' travel to and from Eton, to George Thomason and Eton for hosting the tournament, to Hugo Young for his organisational help, to all those who came and played and made it such a fun day and especially to Will Seath & Ollie Avery at Royal Holloway and to Viral Gudiwala, Nick Choustikov, Clara Calderbank and Becky Diston at Cambridge for bringing along such large contingents.
Final (last game of round robin stage)
Oxford (M.Briscoe & A.Hepburn) beat Cambridge 1 (C.Calderbank & J.Tu) 15-4
London (J.Chiang & M. Esse Bianchi) beat Cambridge 2 (B.Diston & S-L Yuen) 2-0 (12-6, 12-2)
Oxford 1 (O.Denby & H.Young) beat QM/Imperial (N.Turnbull & S.Shah) 15-0
King's (C.Koksal & J.Ledigo) beat LSE 2 (S.Gupta & A.Barry) 15-14
LSE 1 (S.Balaji & D.Marshall) beat UCL (Ab.Bhattacharya & P.Wilkinson) 15-6
Oxford Brookes (S.Mcloughlin & H.Gibson-Leitao) beat Royal Holloway 1 (W.Seath & O.Avery) 15-4
Oxford 1 beat King's 2-0 (12-1, 12-4)
Oxford Brookes beat LSE 1 2-0 (12-4, 12-9)
Oxford 1 beat Oxford Brookes 2-1 (12-8, 6-12, 12-7)
Oxford 2 (M.Briscoe & A.Hepburn) beat Royal Holloway 3 (M.Dobson & C.Peeré) 12-0
Royal Holloway 2 (R.Sabisky & B.Whelan) beat Royal Holloway 5 (M.Lloyd/J.Smith/P.No) 12-0
Cambridge 3 (H.Kalaiya & G.Poole) beat Royal Holloway 4 (S.White & J.Souness) 12-1
Cambridge 5 (H.Lyle & D.Bacon) beat Cambridge 4 (A.Butcher & R.Swallow) 12-1
Cambridge/Imperial (A.Clover & S.Shah) beat Cambridge 3 12-5
Warwick/Bristol (V.Shetty & R.Elston) beat Royal Holloway 2 12-7
Cambridge 1 (V.Gudiwala & N.Choustikov) beat Cambridge 5 12-10
Sheffield (J.Hanton & L.Vanhaesebroeck) beat Oxford 2 12-10
Warwick/Bristol beat Cambridge/Imperial 12-5
Cambridge 1 beat Sheffield 12-6
Cambridge 1 beat Warwick/Bristol 12-11
Cambridge 3 beat Royal Holloway 2 12-10
Cambridge 5 beat Oxford 2 12-6
Cambridge 5 beat Cambridge 3 12-10
Plate C (incomplete)
Winners: Cambridge 4