Cooley & Dunbar Hold On For Number Eleven

12/07/21: Seb Cooley & Tom Dunbar withstood a dramatic comeback from Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden to win their eleventh consecutive Kinnaird Cup in association with Advanta Wealth title yesterday.

S.Cooley & T.Dunbar (1) beat J.Ho & R.Houlden (3) 3-1 (12-4, 12-4, 10-15, 12-8)

WATCH THE MATCH HERE

The last two years have been rather different for the Kinnaird Cup; moved from its usual March/April timeslot and fitted in ad hoc around lockdowns and courts only being available during the school holidays, it has tested the patience of all involved and required both flexibility and resilience to keep the show on the road.

One thing hasn't changed, however: the enduring quality of the remarkable Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley, who continue to set record after record. This year, however, they most certainly did not have things all their own way and had to dig deep to hold off the challenge of Jonny Ho & Riki Houlden, who pushed the champions to the limit in the latter stages of the final.

Jonny & Riki came into the match in a buoyant mood, having overcome both psychological and physical barriers in their five game semi-final win against James Toop & Matt Wiseman the week before. Seb & Tom had a much more comfortable passage through their semi-final, but it had only taken place the day before and was therefore still in their legs.

The first game was familiar territory as Tom & Seb imposed themselves on their opponents with their trademark combination of agility, speed, accuracy and fast reactions all based upon a rock solid set piece. The first game was won to 4 and when Tom & Seb swiftly and smoothly moved out to a 4-0 lead in the second game, it looked as though it might turn into a routine victory. In fact, it was far from it. The score in the second game was identical to that in the first - 12-4 - but it felt like a different match as Jonny & Riki began to grow in confidence and started to pose Seb & Tom a few more problems. They were never able to close the gap having conceded the early advantage, but the score belied the fact that the balance between the two pairs was shifting much closer to parity.

For the first time in the match, Jonny & Riki avoided falling victim to the early Seb & Tom blitz at the start of the third game. The Fives was fantastic with all four players volleying and retrieving to an incredibly high standard, producing some long, tiring and frequently mesmerising rallies. Gradually Jonny & Riki began to edge in front, first 7-5 then 8-6 before the match suddenly hit fast forward over the course of the next few hands. Jonny knocked a shot to the back left fractionally out to end a rally that could have taken them to 9-6; Tom & Seb got back on serve and sensed the opportunity, Seb producing a burst of fine returning and a couple of devastating winning volleys to turn 6-8 into 10-8 in the blink of an eye. Jonny & Riki survived the rally that could have put them match point down and went back up to serve. They were only two points from victory, but Tom & Seb suddenly began to falter - the cuts weren't quite as crisp as before, the movement not as swift and Jonny & Riki capitalised, returning well, getting on the front foot, controlling the rallies and doing all the attacking, including a left-hand volley into the hole from Jonny to level at 10-10 and a left-hand drive from the back court from Riki a few minutes later that arrowed into the same place to take the game 15-10. Game on.

In the semi-final last week, Jonny & Riki had understandably found it difficult to maintain the intensity of winning the second game against Matt & James at the start of the third and found themselves 0-7 down. It seemed inevitable that Tom & Seb - clearly tired having played the day before and having been pushed so hard here in the second and third games - would come out all guns blazing at the start of the fourth to try and get themselves into a match-winning position quickly without getting bogged down in a long, hard battle. Knowing what is coming is one thing, dealing with it is quite another and the blitz duly came, both Tom & Seb finding an outstanding cut-returning groove that enabled them to build the attacking platform that they hadn't had at the end of the third. A couple of (mainly forced) errors from Jonny & Riki were also thrown into the mix and Seb & Tom established a 10-2 lead, surely a decisive one.

Well it was, but it so nearly wasn't. With the finishing line in sight, Tom & Seb lost concentration and with it started losing points. Suddenly the ball was going down or out; they couldn't buy a winning cut and 2-10 became 8-10 in no time at all. Not often in their ten year winning run had they found themselves in this position and it took a heroic effort to stop the hemorrhaging of points. We've seen the amazing skills many times over the years, but here was a glimpse of the champion mentality, the steely determination and will to win that has always co-existed with those skills but has not often had to be drawn on. It was here as Tom & Seb held their nerve, refound their cutting just when they needed it and closed the game and the match out 12-8, very relieved indeed not to find themselves playing a fifth game.

Riki & Jonny can be proud of their performance in the competition this year and the gap is undoubtedly closing. It is still there, however, and Tom & Seb deserve huge praise once again for the continued brilliance of their play, the character they showed to get over the line under immense pressure and of course their quite remarkable longevity after so long at the top of the game.

The numbers make astonishing reading: this was their eleventh consecutive win together, breaking the pairs record of ten in a row held by Matthews & Reynolds and equalling the individual record of John Reynolds. For Tom, this was a twentieth final (breaking the record of Tony Hughes) and a scarcely credible seventeenth win. Is anyone brave enough to bet against them doing it all again next year?

My thanks go to Advanta Wealth for their sponsorship, to Eton for hosting the tournament, to Stefan Ferencz for his photography and filming expertise and to all of the players who helped us get through this year's tournament successfully in trying circumstances.

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