On a clement afternoon - and for the first time on a Saturday rather than a Sunday - 15 players assembled for the latest edition of the Westminster Club Tournament. Despite a late withdrawal dashing the (new) organisers' hopes of a perfect 16, the players were split into two groups of four pairs, with the tournament's retired organiser taking to the Court on a 2 v 1 basis in Group A.
In Group B, the pair to establish themselves early as contenders for the title was that of Hugo Young & William Ching, the only school player in this year's competition. Hugo was the club's Most Improved Player last season and, aided by William's excellent support, he provided a clear indication to all present that at least part of his summer had been well spent on court. A hard-fought initial win over John Reynolds & Kotka Lim was followed by further victories over Sacha Mehta & last year's winner Matt Lewin, and then Sahil Shah & Edward Levy as Hugo & William claimed top spot in the group. Meanwhile, after their far-from-ideal start, John & Kotka picked themselves up and won a closely fought game against Sahil & Edward 12-8. A big initial lead proved crucial as, despite a mid-game wobble, they pushed on to secure the win. Building on that momentum, John & Kotka then proceeded to win their final game against the fast-cutting pair of Sacha & Matt, securing second place in the group (and a place in the semi-finals as below).
Meanwhile, perhaps inevitably given that it included Harry De Quetteville, Group A went down to the wire. Harry & partner Alex Benson began with a relatively comfortable victory over Alfred Jackson & Can Koksal but in the second round faced the 2 v 1 riddle against Laurie, who had suffered an agonising 11-12 defeat in Round 1 against Ben Merrett & Elana Osen. At 8-2 up all looked rosy for Harry & Alex but, faced with imminent elimination, Laurie clawed his way back to parity and, after several hands on sudden death, secured victory 12-11; meanwhile, a close game between the other two pairs ended in victory for Alfie & Can. The final round saw Harry & Alex defeat Ben & Elana, meaning that Laurie needed to beat Alfred & Can to finish top on the head-to-head rule. A terrific start from Alfred & Can, with excellent cut returning and clever shots around the walls, saw them take a commanding 8-1 lead but, in a near-repeat of Round 2, that lead was steadily eroded and an increasingly weary Laurie staggered (more than just figuratively) over the line 12-10.
Fortunately for all concerned (given that Harry and Alex would have finished top of Group A had it been decided on points difference rather than head-to-head), this year saw a semi-final stage introduced for the first time.
Unfortunately for Harry & Alex, they ran into an inspired Hugo in their semi-final. Combining his customary ferocious speed and intensity with impressive touch and softness of shot where required, Hugo produced his best fives of the day as he & William cruised to a 12-5 win and a place in the final.
Meanwhile, the other semi-final proved a step too far for Laurie as, despite John and Kotka generously allowing him two serves rather than one as per the group stage, a combination of excellent court craft and effective cutting saw them keep him at arm's length throughout and emerge worthy winners 12-9.
Having won their group stage encounter against John & Kotka, Hugo & William started as favourites in the final (played to 15). However, the standard of John & Kotka's fives had risen over the course of the afternoon and they ripped up all pre-match predictions by storming into an early 5-0 lead through a combination of excellent cut returning from both and some typically dead-eye back court shots from John. Hugo & William were not to be so easily swept aside, however, and as William got to grips with John's shots to the back-left corner and Hugo established himself in the match with a series of terrific volley winners, they fought back to 5-5, which became 7-7.
At this stage, John & Kotka regained control, Kotka cutting well and playing with great consistency at the back of the court especially, and John beginning to dominate at the front of the court, consistently putting the ball in awkward positions and making life difficult for Hugo & William. A quick run of points established a critical five-point lead which they never relinquished, instead pulling away further to claim the title 15-8.
The final was a pleasure to watch on many levels: Hugo increasingly looks like a star of the future; William acquitted himself exceptionally well for a player still at school; Kotka played his best match of the day when it really mattered; and John, an honorary Westminster who championed the initiation of this tournament back in 2011 (and finished runner up in its inaugural year) - but who was scarcely able to play three years ago due to a hip complaint - confirmed that, following an operation, he remains a serious force with which to be reckoned.
Indeed, the standard of play throughout the day was of a very high standard, despite the inevitable rust that besets a large proportion of the Westminster contingent over the long summer months. Many games were too close to call - even to the very last shot - and there was, as befits the OWs, a refreshing mixture of clinically devastating kill-shots and off-the-wall, roguish ricochets, all played with infectious enthusiasm. This even allowed for an (incredibly) informal plate competition for those who had missed out on semi-final berths.
Thanks to everyone for playing and to those who attended the dinner afterwards. Next year will (amazingly) be the tenth edition of this tournament, so we will be looking for a bumper turnout!