Ho & Houlden Into The Kinnaird Final After Five Hour Epic
06/07/21: The first semi-final of the 2021 Kinnaird Cup in association with Advanta Wealth produced a match for the ages at Eton on Sunday, as Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden defeated James Toop & Matthew Wiseman 3-2 in a shade under five hours.
J.Ho & R.Houlden (3) beat J.Toop & M.Wiseman (2) 3-2 (7-12, 15-13, 5-12, 15-10, 12-9)
The 2021 Kinnaird Cup has inevitably been a slightly stop start affair, with lockdowns and court access restrictions delaying the opening weekend to the end of May and then a five week gap to the semi-finals. Enforced self-isolation has meant that the second semi-final has been delayed until next Saturday, but the first match took place at Eton on Sunday and was an absolute classic, watched by a sizeable audience via the online live stream.
The match came with plenty of backstory, with James Toop & Matthew Wiseman back yet again in the last four, 23 years after their first appearance at this stage of the competition. The intervening years have seen them crowned winners on three occasions as well as reaching numerous other finals and being the main challengers to Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley for a large part of the last decade. With Matt missing the 2018 and 2019 competitions due to injury, Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden stepped into the challenger role, reaching two Kinnaird finals and becoming the first pair to defeat Tom & Seb in the London Tournament final of 2019.
The two pairs met for the first time in the 2020 semi-finals and it was something of a damp squib as James & Matt dominated from the start, winning comfortably in straight games. The combination of the Olavian pair's enduring quality and the mental challenge of playing against his former coach in Riki's case proved to be too much for the younger pair on that day, but hopes were high that their second meeting would produce a much closer contest.
It was clear from the off that this was a very different match to last year's semi-final. Right from the start, the rallies were long and lung-bursting with the returning, the movement and the retrieving all of the highest order. Both pairs were wary of forcing the issue too hard or too early in the rally and risking unforced errors. As a result every point had to be chiselled out and it was only towards the end of the first game that Matt & James managed to impose themselves for a period of time and break away to win it 12-7. The first game lasted 48 minutes but was a mere warm up for what was to follow as game two clocked in at an astonishing 74 minutes. Having lost the first game, Riki & Jonny did well first of all to hang on their opponents for long periods, then level with them at 10-10 and eventually move ahead to 14-11. A couple of half chances came and went before Matt & James pulled it back to 13-14 and still at first hand. The next few rallies were crucial moments in the match and an unreturnable cut followed by an astonishing 59 shot rally - only ended by a Ho volley clipping the edge of the step - took Riki & Jonny back up and serving. This time the cut came back and 19 shots later it was another Ho volley - this time a left-hander into the hole - that finally finished the game and levelled the match at 1-1 with well over two hours already on the clock.
Perhaps inevitably there was an emotional hangover from winning that game for Jonny & Riki, whose intensity just dropped a little at the start of the third. To their great credit, if to no-one's great surprise, Matt & James seized the opportunity with alacrity, getting on the front foot straight away, piling the pressure onto their opponents and producing the first and perhaps only real one-sided spell of the match to establish a 7-0 lead. Importantly for their chances in the fourth, Riki & Jonny got themselves back on an even keel and returned their level to where it had been for the majority of the first two games, but it was too late to make a comeback on the scoreboard and the game went to Matt & James 12-5.
The fourth game saw a return to the earlier pattern of points being slowly earned through a metaphorical combination of blood, sweat and tears. The second half of the game - with either an Olavian win or a deciding game getting closer and closer - saw no let up in quality and no chink in the physical armour of any of the players, all of whom displayed remarkable levels of fitness as the match approached the four hour mark. There were a series of small momentum shifts: Jonny & Riki got their noses in front at 7-5, then it was Matt & James who gained control to move to 10-8 and within two points of a place in the final. Another volley into the hole - this time from Riki - shifted things again as 8-10 became 12-10 (playing up to 15) in one hand. Two cuts, three returns and four minutes later (with another 37 shot rally thrown in) it was 15-10 and 2-2, as the players prepared themselves for a fifth game and a fifth hour of play.
Given the amount of physical and emotional energy spent in getting to this point, all four players could have been forgiven for starting to slow down in the fifth game but as yet another close and enthralling game of Fives unfolded there were no signs of flagging, with all four players continuing to demonstrate remarkable levels of fitness and concentration. The rallies continued to be long, demanding and athletic, points were just as hard to earn as at any stage of the match and the standard of play from all four remained sky high right through to the end. As in the fourth game, neither pair was able to establish a spell of dominance; instead the game inched towards its conclusion with every point fought for tooth and nail. Jonny & Riki got to 8-6 and then 9-7 before some sharp returning and volleying from James drew two quick points to level at 9-9. Some calm, measured and panic-free top step play from Riki crucially prevented the Olavians from getting to 10 first and the end then came quickly - a rare cheap point to put Riki & Jonny ahead, another Ho volley clipping the edge of the step in an echo of the end of the second game and the first match point converted to finally end a quite stunning match.
It is a horrible sporting cliché (not that that usually bothers your correspondent...) to talk about matches that neither pair deserve to lose, but this was certainly one. It will be of scant consolation to James & Matt, of course, but they contributed fully to a magnificent encounter, their levels of skill, determination and fitness as high as they have ever been in nearly a quarter of a century at the top of the game.
For Riki & Jonny, this was a hugely impressive and satisfying performance, putting their disappointing defeat last year behind them and moving into a third Kinnaird final in the space of four years.
Whether they find themselves once again up against Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley or whether rapidly improving youngsters Hugo Young & Noah Caplin can cause an upset in the other semi-final, we will find out next Saturday.
In the meantime, if you didn't watch it live and have five hours to spare, you can watch the first semi-final HERE.