Yet Another Title for Highgate
09/11/15: The Richard Black Cup is now in its seventh year and the numbers of participants, the standard and the strength in depth all continue to rise, making the 2015 edition of the competition the best yet. The fantastic group of players from Highgate School won for the fourth successive year, but they had to work very hard to defeat perennial challengers North Oxford. The gap between these two teams and the rest was still there this year, but it is closing all the time and the standard of play throughout the competition, all the way down to the 7th/8th place match was both hugely impressive and highly encouraging for the future of ladies Fives.
Eight teams entered the tournament this year, equalling the record set in 2014, with the Old Westminsters and Shrewsbury School welcome first time entrants. The teams were divided into two groups of four for the morning's play. Group A was dominated by Highgate 1 and Group B by North Oxford, both of whom won all eighteen individual games played although plenty of hard work had to go into ensuring those unbeaten records in the face of some strong opposition.
Competition for the second qualifying spot in each group was fierce. In Group A, a potentially very strong Ipswich/Cambridge East Anglian team, led by ladies champion Charlotta Cooley, had suffered from numerous late withdrawals, leaving them having to rely on the two spare Shrewsbury squad members to make up their numbers and also on the fantastic commitment of Louise Rymell, who was working in the morning as cabin crew on a flight into Heathrow which landed just after 11. A jump into a taxi and a quick change later she was on court for the second round of games, teaming up with promising youngster Charlotte Gregory (daughter of OI player Tim) to go through the rest of the day undefeated at second pair. Oxford University had the edge on Ipswich and the Old Westminsters at third pair, but lost to both at first and second, leaving the winner of the Ipswich v Westminster match to go through. Louise and Charlotte did their thing at second pair to win 12-9, 12-11 against Harriet Allan and Natalie Loh but the Westminster quarter of Olivia Prankerd Smith, Elana Osen, Sarah Basemera and Ashley Lumbard won at first and third pair to clinch second and a place in the semis.
Group B meanwhile was even closer. With North Oxford safely through in first, three very evenly matched teams - Highgate 2, Shrewsbury and the EFA - battled it out for second place. Astonishingly it all came down to the final game of the final match, the first pair rubber between the EFA and Shrewsbury. With Highgate 2 finished on 6 points, the EFA already on 6 and Shrewsbury on 5, a win for the Shrewsbury pair, who had already won the first game of the encounter, would mean a three way tie and points difference countback. With all to play for, the EFA pairing of Charlie Farquharson-Roberts and Lucy Pugh had to use all of their experience to turn a 10-12 first game defeat at tha hands of Shrewsbury schoolgirls Sophia Breese and Emma Graham into a 12-9 second game win and a place in the semis for the EFA team.
The four non-qualifiers went into the plate semi-finals and once again four well-matched teams produced some outstanding and close matches. Ipswich narrowly overcame Shrewsbury in one semi-final and Highgate 2 just had enough to beat Oxford University at first and second, with the students third string again proving to be their banker pair. The final was tight again but with Cooley and Natalie Lilienthal producing their most dominant performance of the day to win at first pair and Highgate winning at third, it was left to stars of the day Rymell and Gregory to take the win with a 7-4 deciding game shootout victory. The Oxford students also saved their best to last with a 3-0 over the tiring Shrewsbury girls (who look every inch the ante-post favourites for the 2017 Black Cup) in the 7th/8th place match.
The main tournament semi-finals were proving that the morning results were no fluke and that Highgate 1 and North Oxford were the two best teams in the tournament. A knee injury to captain Elana Osen didn't help the Westminsters' cause, but they were unable to put a dent in North Oxford's unbeaten record, despite a strong first game performance from Ashley Lumbard and Olivia Prankerd Smith at first pair. The EFA team had performed heroics just to make it into the last four but their sextet of Teresa Dunbar, Nina Sorensen, Charlie Farquharson-Roberts, Lucy Pugh, Sarah Wiggill and Ellie Casey were unable to stop the Highgate juggernaut; they did, however, manage to recover sufficently to win the 3rd/4th place match with a tense 2-1 win over the Westminsters, secured thanks to a three game comeback win at second pair by Dunbar and Sorensen and a fine win for Berkhamstedians Casey and Wiggill.
And so for the third successive year Highgate and North Oxford faced off in the final and what a magnificent final it was. With an impressive sense of oneupmanship over Louise, Mandie Barnes had got off a flight back to the UK from Vietnam at 6:30am that morning and had then made it through to the final unbeaten. The final proved to be a match too far for her, however, as she and Wendy Carling were unable to cope with the speed and accuracy of Highgate's strong third string of Marjolaine Briscoe and Carolina Valensise. The other two pairs started well for North Oxford, however as Karen Hird and Harriet Asquith converted their early lead into a 12-5 first game win over Phoebe Bracken and Amira Reimer. At second pair for Highgate, Eve Smith-Bingham - a player with immense pedigree and huge talent - was finding life difficult ro start with in partnership with U15 Viva Ruggi. Eve's music commitments have severely curtailed her Fives in the last 18 months and her lack of court time was showing as Rosie Scott and Francesca Turnbull tore into an early lead. Eventually Eve's class began to tell and with some classy touches and fine support from her younger partner, the tide began to turn in the favour and the game levelled up at 11-11. Here, potentially was where the whole tie could be won or lost and it was the Highgate pair who came through with flying colours, winning 14-11 and then 12-6 to wrap up the title. The destination of the cup may have been decided but the first pair match was still going on and was developing into an absolute classic. Phoebe and Amira had recovered well from the disappointment of losing the first game and took the second to 7 to set up a decider. With everyone else finished, a large crowd were treated to a fabulous third game, surely the best Fives that this competition has ever seen. There was nothing to choose between the pairs right up to 9-9 but a little bit of extra power and precision in the last few rallies gave Phoebe and Amira the win, finishing off a terrific game, a terrific final and a terrific tournament and giving the Highgate girls a well-deserved fourth victory in a row. Richard Black and former ladies champion Krystyna Vargas were on hand to dish out the trophies and traditional chocolates.
My thanks to go Richard and Krystyna, to Mike Hughes and Eton for hosting the tournament, to Anthony Brunner, Andy Barnard, Elana Osen, Rosie Parr, Alice Stables, Charlotta Cooley, Sarah Wiggill and Ellie Casey for their help in putting together teams and to all those who took part and made it such a tremendous success.
Highgate 1 - 18 points
Old Westminsters - 8 points
Ipswich - 6 points
Oxford University - 4 points
North Oxford - 18 points
EFA - 7 points
Highgate 2 - 6 points
Shrewsbury - 5 points
Highgate 1 beat EFA 3-0
A.Reimer & P.Bracken beat L.Pugh & C.Farquaharson-Roberts 2-0
E.Smith-Bingham & V.Ruggi beat T.Dunbar & N.Sorensen 2-0
M.Briscoe & C.Valensise beat S.Wiggill & E.Casey 2-0
North Oxford beat Old Westminsters 3-0
K.Hird & H.Asquith beat A.Lumbard & O.Prankerd Smith 2-0
R.Scott & F.Turnbull beat H.Allan & N.Loh 2-0
M.Barnes & W.Carling beat E.Osen & S.Basemera 2-0
Highgate 1 beat North Oxford 3-0
A.Reimer & P.Bracken beat K.Hird & H.Asquith 2-1 (5-12, 12-7, 12-9)
E.Smith-Bingham & V.Ruggi beat R.Scott & F.Turnbull 2-0 (14-11, 12-6)
M.Briscoe & C.Valensise beat M.Barnes & W.Carling 3-0 (12-0, 12-7)
EFA beat Old Westminsters 2-1
Ipswich beat Highgate 2 2-1
Oxford University beat Shrewsbury 3-0