Wisemans Win Epic Aberconway
25/04/22: Howard & Gwydion Wiseman retained the Aberconway Cup in association with Advanta Wealth in a thrilling final at Eton on Sunday.
The Aberconway Cup (for pairs consisting of father/mother & son/daughter combinations) has been going for over thirty years now but rarely can a larger or stronger field have been assembled than this year's. There were one or two notable absentees but an impressive sixteen pairs made it to the start line, with a full range of experience, ability and age, with the youngest player aged 8 and the oldest 78.
There were a couple of notable records, with the Walters returning to the competition for the first time since 2018, 30 years after their first appearance as a pair, Tom Dunbar becoming the fourth player (after Gareth Hoskins, Guy Chapman and Tim Gregory) to play in the tournament as both a son and a father and his son Jamie becoming the youngest ever participant, a couple of months shy of his 9th birthday.
One of the features of the Aberconway is the generous and fair spirit in which the matches are always played and this shone through right from the start, sitting comfortably alongside the extremely competitive matches that characterised the morning's group stages, with only eight qualifying spots available and some very useful pairs set to miss out on a quarter-final place. Group A was reasonably straightforward, with defending champions Howard & Gwydion Wiseman winning fairly comfortably, Gareth & Tom Hoskins seeing off the challenges of Niifio & Ethan Addy and Gideon & Elana Osen to take second place. Nine times champions Mike & Chris Hughes showed they were serious contenders for a tenth title, winning Group B ahead of 2021 semi-finalists Adam & Jack Pemberton, while Paul & James Holland narrowly edged out out Pete & Tim Scholey to finish third. There were more former champions lurking in Group C as three times winners Grant & Guy Williams made it through in first place, Tim & Natasha Gregory holding off 1995 and 2002 winners Tony & T Walters to take the second qualifying place and Brian & Henry Steele finishing fourth. Group D lived up to expectations as the most difficult to predict. It was the only group not to contain a former winning pair (although Tom Dunbar did win four times in a row from 1996-1999 with father Graham) but it did boast both current Kinnaird winners, plus a two-time Kinnaird semi-finalist as Tom & Jamie Dunbar, Seb & John Cooley and James & Noah Caplin all took to the court. Throw in the formidable-looking pairing of Jonathan & Matt Asquith and you have a recipe for some very interesting matches. Jamie Dunbar showed plenty of promise as he and Tom picked up 10, 7 and 9 points from their three matches, leaving the other three pairs to fight it out for the top two spots. The Caplins saw off the threat of the Asquiths very efficiently but were unable to get past the Cooleys, losing 15-11. The Asquiths & Cooleys were poised at 14-14 before the Cooleys found the winning point, putting them through in first place with the Caplins second and the Asquiths unlucky to miss out.
A combination of injury and common sense prompted the Walters and Asquiths to bow out gracefully at this point, leaving six pairs to fight it out for the Mike Fenn plate. Two groups of three were then played out, with age and stamina becoming increasingly relevant. The Addys looked strong in Group A, defeating the Hollands and the Steeles to head into the final where they found themselves up against the Dunbars, who came through nailbiting 15-14 and 15-12 wins over the Scholeys and Osens respectively, much to Jamie's delight and that of the watching members of the Dunbar family, Tom adjusting well to the unusual experience of finding himself in a plate competition. Niifio & Ethan Addy had a little too much nous and firepower for the Dunbars in the final, though and came through 15-11 winners to add their names to the distinguished list of former winners in the Mike Fenn Plate's short history. The Hollands repeated their morning win over the Scholeys to win Plate B and the Osens recorded a well-deserved victory in the Plate C final over the battling Steeles.
The main competition quickly began to heat up after the lunch break as the quarter-finals provided some terrific matches, a taste of things to come. The Caplins were unable to recover from the disappointment of not topping their group in the morning and weren't able to make much of an impact against Mike & Chris Hughes. Tim & Natasha Gregory put up a very strong showing against the Wisemans without ever really threatening an upset. Gareth & Tom Hoskins - with Tom in particular stepping his game up a level or two - got off to a strong start against Grant & Guy Williams and then recovered from a mid-game wobble to get back to 10-11; there was a big sigh of relief from the Williams pairing when they finally made it through 15-11. The final game featured the Cooleys and the Pembertons and for the second time in the day (perhaps not all that surprising to those who have seen Seb play in these competitions before) it was the Cooleys who came through as 15-14 sudden death winners.
Not even Seb could manufacture a similar scenario in the semi-final against the Wisemans, as the Cooleys finally fell off the tightrope against the defending champions, who played sensible and ruthless Fives to cruise through 12-2, 12-2. While they put their feet up and stocked up on much-needed energy-giving chocolate, old friends and rivals the Hughes & Williams did their best to bash each other into submission in a fabulous semi-final. These two pairs know each other inside out and have had innumerable battles in this competition over the years (frequently in the final). This year looked initially as if it might peter out into something one-sided as Mike Hughes suffered a minor fetlock strain in the first game, which the Williams won 12-7. When these two pairs play each other, though, defeat is simply not an option and Mike found a way to keep going and get himself into the game, he and Chris winning the second 12-6 to set up a decider. Injury and fatigue were both playing their part, but there was still a huge amount to admire in the Fives being played, with the traditional Salopian fast attacking and volleying style keeping the crowd royally entertained. Perhaps inevitably it went to 11-11. It only took a brief glance between the two pairs to agree that sudden death was most definitely the better option and it was a moot point as to whether the desire to win or the desire not to have to play any more was greater; as always with these four, though, competitive instincts kicked in and it was the Williams who got the winning point to set up a repeat of the 2021 final.
Many of those watching felt there was a danger that the final would be rather one-sided, with the nicely rested and largely (so far) untested Wisemans against the Williams, who had spent way longer on court and expended a lot of energy in both their quarter and semi-final matches. The well of competitive spirit runs deep in the Williams family, however, and as the final started it quickly became apparent that the early advantage was held by the pair who were already battle-hardened and up to speed rather than rested and possibly undercooked. It took Howard & Gwydion a considerable time to get themselves up to the required pace and level of intensity, by which time Grant & Guy had wrapped up the first game 12-6 and kept the scoreline close all the way through to the end of the second. By this time Howard was starting to find his range, but it was actually Gwydion, with three successive round the walls winners from the back court to the bottom of the buttress, who landed the killer punches at the end of the second game to rescue the Wisemans in the nick of time and level at 1-1. Again, those watching were tempted to write off Grant & Guy at this point; they looked (unsurprisingly) exhausted and surely it would be asking too much for them to continue going toe to toe with the increasingly effective Wiseman combination? Again, those watching were wrong, as the knowledge that this was their final game of the day and that the title was on the line was enough to keep the Williams' fires stoked. The third game was terrific to watch; a few tired mistakes here and there, sure, but huge amounts to admire as well with the contrasting styles of the four players producing some wonderful entertainment for those who had stayed to watch. It was nip and tuck all the way through; at about 7-7, the call was made in the crowd that this was going to be 15-14 and this time they got it right, the fresher Wisemans inevitably choosing to extend the game as far as possible once it reached 10-10. Howard & Gwydion then seemed to have the match under control, getting a couple of points ahead and serving at 14-12. Back came Grant & Guy, though, cutting them down and replying with two points of their own to serve at 14-14 at second hand. Guy served, Gwydion cut and everyone held their breath as the ball hit the front ledge and went up in the air. Guy hit a good volley but just missed the perfect length that would have finished the match. Gwydion managed to get it back in play and the Wisemans won the rally and then converted their own match point at the next opportunity to end a magnificent final and finally put an end to Grant & Guy's heroic challenge.
The EFA's April tournaments are setting a high bar for excitement, with a 14-13 deciding game in the Mixed and a 15-14 deciding game in the Aberconway. The Veterans tournament next weekend has a lot to live up to!
Thanks go to Eton for hosting the tournament, Advanta Wealth for their continued sponsorship and all those who came and played on Sunday and made it such an enjoyable day. If you have a parent or a child who can put a pair of gloves on and hit a ball, we hope to see you next year...
Aberconway Cup 2022
H & G Wiseman beat T & N Gregory 15-8
J & S Cooley beat A & J Pemberton 15-14
G & G Williams beat G & T Hoskins 15-11
M & C Hughes beat J & N Caplin 15-5
H & G Wiseman beat J & S Cooley 2-0 (12-2, 12-2)
G & G Williams beat M & C Hughes 2-1 (12-7, 6-12, 12-11)
H & G Wiseman beat G & G Williams 2-1 (6-12, 14-11, 15-14)
A & J Pemberton beat T & N Gregory 15-13
Mike Fenn Plate Final
N & E Addy beat T & J Dunbar 15-11
Plate B Final
P & J Holland beat P & T Scholey 15-6
Plate C Final
G & E Osen beat B & H Steele 15-5