Houlden & Young Retain The London
27/11/23: Riki Houlden & Hugo Young won the London Tournament in association with Advanta Wealth for the second year in a row at Harrow at the weekend, defeating Jonny Ho & James Hopkins in the final.
24 pairs entered the main tournament on the Saturday, with most of the top players present and correct. The most notable absentees were seven times champions Tom Dunbar & Seb Cooley due to injury, leaving defending champions Riki Houlden & Hugo Young as the pair to be shot at by the chasing pack.
The first phase of the tournament saw the 24 pairs divided into six groups of four, with the six group winners progressing straight to the quarter-finals and the runners-up then playing in two mini groups of three to claim the final two places in the knockout stages.
The top four seeded pairs - Houlden & Young (1), Jonny Ho & James Hopkins (2), James Toop & Tony Barker (3) and Ed Taylor & Noah Caplin (4) all made it through relatively comfortably. The final two groups, on the other hand, produced some interesting results right from the off, with Karen Hird & Charlotta Cooley pulling off an early coup with a 15-11 win over Richard Tyler & Can Koksal, who then needed to beat Vishal Bhimjiyani & Joe Marks in order to keep their hopes alive. They couldn't manage it, leaving Vish & Joe to top the group and Karen & Charlotta to qualify for the second round as runners-up, their best ever result in an open tournament.
The other group featured Westminsters Laurie Brock & Sahil Shah and the dangerous Old Millhillian (via QEB) pairing of Sunil Tailor & Charles Plummer. Plummer's ability has not been in doubt for some time, but until this season he has not managed to translate that into tournament performances. With the Midlands and U25 titles already under his belt this season and the experienced Tailor alongside him, they hit the ground running, beating the Westminster pair 15-5 and announcing themselves as serious contenders.
The two mini groups in last season's London produced some of the most exciting Fives of the tournament; there weren't quite the same pyrotechnics this time around but it did give a second opportunity for the middle-ranked pairs to show they deserved the coveted places in the quarter-final line-ups. Karen & Charlotta were not quite able to repeat their morning heroics in the first group, despite continuing to play well, leaving the young pairings of Gwydion Wiseman & Jack Pemberton and Fred Prickett & Oskar Denby to fight it out for the top spot, Pemberton & Wiseman's extra court time this season probably the decisive factor as they won a tight game 15-11. The other group started with a bang as Salopians Sam Welti & Henry Blofield produced a devastating set piece display against Brock & Shah, who simply couldn't get into the game at all. Sam & Henry's second game was much tighter, Alex Abrahams & Ben Merrett pushing them close before eventually succumbing 15-12. The importance of returning cut was emphasised by the final game in the group, which saw Laurie & Sahil bounce back with a 15-5 win over Alex & Ben to round off the second phase.
The first two quarter-finals had already got underway, with Toop & Barker continuing their good form with a clinically efficient win over Marks & Bhimjiyani. The other top four seeded pair in earlier action were not having things their own way, however, with Noah Caplin & Ed Taylor struggling to come to terms with playing another pair of left-handers in Plummer & Tailor. The Millhillian pair won the first game comfortably 12-4 and although the second and third were much closer (14-11 and 12-9) it was Sunil & Charles who had the edge each time to make it through to the semis in their first major tournament as a pair.
Wiseman & Pemberton and Welti & Blofield then got their hard-earned crack at the top two seeds; neither were able to spring an upset (although Jack & Gwydion did produce an excellent third game to take 8 points of Jonny & James) and the semi-final line-up was completed by Riki & Hugo and Jonny & James.
Elsewhere on the Saturday afternoon, the Main Tournament plate competition produced some excellent Fives as always. The majority of the morning's non-qualifiers were joined by some extra Harrow school pairs and four hard-fought groups produced four semi-finalists - defending plate champions Beau Swallow & Nick Choustikov, Archie Cameron-Blackie & Edwin Gosnell, Abs Bhattacharya & Vatche Kassardjian and Alex Vinen & James Alster. There were some good pairs who were unlucky to miss out, notably Bryanstonians Tancred Campbell & Frank Lebon, twice sudden death losers, Lancing club pair Al Taylor & Matt Davis and two good school pairs - Ipswichians Henry Gardner & Alex Phillips and Harrovians Algie Anderson & Valentine Ballingal.
Picking a winner at the semi-final stage looked pretty tricky and in the end it was the Oxford pair of Beau & Nick who got their hands on the chocolate for the second year in a row with a convincing win in the final over Archie & Edwin.
Sunday morning saw another batch of hopefuls arrive at Harrow, ready to tackle the Festival Tournament. 22 pairs made it to the start line, with the usual assortment of ages (14-73), several mixed pairings, some married pairs, father & son pairs and intrepid Rugby Fives and Welsh Handball players having a go at a different code.
A lengthy group phase - with an injury substitution and a bit of pair juggling - eventually produced the desired effect, sorting the field out into three tiers for the afternoon knockout stages: the top eight pairs aiming to win the Festival, the next eight pairs fighting it out for Plate A honours and the remaining five going back into a round robin format to see who could become Plate B champions.
The Festival creme de la creme moved on to the show courts and soon got stuck into the serious business end of the competition. The Repton Eton/Rugby alliance of Karen Hird & Lewis Keates saw off Olavians Swastik Gupta & Jessye Tu 15-8; the Cholmeleian/Olavian pairing of Vatche Kassardjian & Sudhir Balaji ended the hopes of Ipswichians Charlotta Cooley & Matt Williams; experience told as Ashley & Chris Lumbard cruised past Olavian U15 pair Oscar Rushton & Henry Etherington and the closest match of the round was won 15-12 by Ipswichians Alex Phillips & Daniel Ingram over Joel Robb & Saajan Shah. Vatche & Sudhir ran out of steam in the semis against Karen & Lewis and Alex & Daniel's impressive run was finally ended by Ashley & Chris, leaving a Hird & Keates v Lumbard & Lumbard final. Lewis is a top Rugby Fives player, but he has amassed quite a bit of Eton Fives experience over the years thanks to the strong links between the Derby Moor Rugby Fives club and the Repton Eton Fives club. He and Karen have teamed up to good effect on the Rugby Fives court already and this time they successfully translated their partnership to the other code, always keeping some daylight between themselves and Chris & Ashley to win the final 15-9.
Plate A proved to be pleasingly unpredictable, with morning group form seeming to have little bearing on afternoon knockout results. Father & son pairing Tom Leach (Old Salopian) and Jan Michalski (Charterhouse) had struggled a little bit in the morning, but - buoyed by a 15-13 win over Summer Fields coach and old boy combination Andy Bishop & Gus Stanhope - found their form when it counted, defeating Abs Bhattacharya & Natalie Lilienthal coninvcingly in the first semi-final. The other semi was one of the matches of the day, EFA Chair Matt Chinery and Nelson handballer (and Eton Fives novice) Gareth Howard losing a 14-15 classic against the Ipswich School pair of Henry Gardner & Kezia Lower. Hopes of an equally thrilling final never quite worked out, however, a confident Tom & Jan producing their best Fives of the day to beat Henry & Kezia 15-3.
The final winners of the day came from Plate B - rechristened the "Archie" plate with more than half of the pairs containing an Archie. This was a classic of its kind, with none of the five pairs winning all of their matches and none of the five pairs losing all of their matches. Deciding a winner required the implementation of some complicated mathematical formulae from the organiser before Ipswichians Will Davidson & Archie (of course) Butler were crowned Chief Archies.
While the Festival was going on around them, the four semi-finalists in the main tournament were back to compete for the top honours. The two semi-finals turned out to be terrific matches, both full of long rallies, exciting shot-making and genuine tension. Plummer & Tailor had shown on Saturday that they were a force to be reckoned with and they were certainly not going to roll over and allow the top seeds to cruise into the final. Houlden & Young had to work hard to win the first game to 8 and found life even tougher in the second as the Millhillian pair got themselves into a 10-7 lead, with a great chance to level at 1-1; it wasn't to be, however and although they continued to play well in the third, losing that second game 11-13 from a potential winning position was terminal to their chances of causing an upset. Nevertheless, this was a statement series of performances across the weekend from Sunil & Charles, who certainly announced themselves as a pair to watch out for.
The second semi-final saw Olavians James Toop & Tony Barker take on Cholmeleians Jonny Ho & James Hopkins - two former champions (Toop & Ho) and two players looking to make a major final for the first time. It was James & Tony who got off to the better start, successfully negating the Cholmeleian volleying threat and moving out to a 6-1 lead, which proved to be enough to withstand the inevitable fightback. First blood to the Olavians. James & Jonny had done enough towards the latter stages of the first game, though, to feel confident that they could turn things around and so it proved. All three of the subsequent games were close and all three extremely hard-fought, with a high percentage of cuts being returned and some long rallies ensuing. Each time, though, Jonny & James had the edge when it really counted, taking the next three to 7, 8 and 8 to book their place in the final against Riki & Hugo.
The final line-up threw up a couple of facts worthy of note - Jonny Ho is no stranger to the finals of major competitions in recent years but this was his first one with a partner other than Riki Houlden, who he instead found himself up against. It was also the first London Tournament final to feature four players all born in the 1990s or later and the first major final anywhere to include two players born in the 2000s. No doubt the old guard will be keen to ensure that doesn't become a trend just yet as the season progresses.
In the absence of Tom & Seb, Riki & Hugo were strong ante-post favourites to win the tournament; perhaps because of their absence, perhaps because it's still relatively early in the season or perhaps because they just didn't need to, they didn't quite seem to be clicking into absolutely top gear during the course of the weekend. James is still relatively new to this level and has also had his season disrupted with an ankle injury, but in the first game he and Jonny were able to play with the freedom of the underdog, putting the defending champions under pressure and staying close on the scoreboard, leaving Riki & Hugo relieved to come through 12-9. The second game saw the champions raise their game, however, playing ther best Fives of the weekend by a distance - noticably more fluent and with fewer errors. A 12-3 win in game two put them within touching distance of the trophy; it was a shame that it ended prematurely at 6-3 in the third game when a Ho shot from the back struck James in the eye. Thankfully, later checks showed no damage had been done, but it was enough to stop the contest early, with Riki & Hugo winning their second London title together and their third major as a pair. They will be delighted to have come through their first tournament as the pair with a target on their backs and will now be setting their sights on the second half of the season and bigger challenges still to come. For Jonny & James, this was another step in the right direction and they will be keen to ensure that they are very much part of the conversation at the sharp end of the season's remaining major tournaments.
My thanks go to Ian Hutchinson and everyone at Harrow for hosting the tournament, to Advanta Wealth for their sponsorship, to Matt Chinery for presenting the trophies, to Archie Cameron-Blackie for his photography and video work (we look forward to seeing the results in due course!) and to all those who came along and made it such an enjoyable weekend.
1. J.Pemberton & G.Wiseman
2. F.Prickett & O.Denby
3. K.Hird & C.Cooley
1. S.Welti & H.Blofield
2. L.Brock & S.Shah
3. A.Abrahams & B.Merrett
R.Houlden & H.Young beat S.Welti & H.Blofield 3-0 (12-2, 12-4, 12-3)
S.Tailor & C.Plummer beat E.Taylor & N.Caplin 3-0 (12-4, 14-11, 12-9)
J.Toop & T.Barker beat V.Bhimjiyani & J.Marks 3-0 (12-5, 12-1, 12-1)
J.Ho & J.Hopkins beat G.Wiseman & J.Pemberton 3-0 (12-2, 12-4, 12-8)
R.Houlden & H.Young beat S.Tailor & C.Plummer 3-0 (12-8, 13-11, 12-7)
J.Ho & J.Hopkins beat J.Toop & T.Barker 3-1 (11-14, 12-7, 12-8, 12-8)
R.Houlden & H.Young beat J.Ho & J.Hopkins 3-0 (12-9, 12-3, 6-3 ret)
B.Swallow & N.Choustikov beat A.Vinen & J.Alster 15-10
A.Cameron-Blackie & E.Gosnell beat V.Kassardjian & Ab.Bhattacharya 15-10
B.Swallow & N.Choustikov beat A.Cameron-Blackie & E.Gosnell 15-7
T.Campbell & F.Lebon beat A.Phillips & H.Gardner 12-7
K.Hird & L.Keates beat S.Gupta & J.Tu 15-8
V.Kassardjian & S.Balaji beat C.Cooley & M.Williams 15-7
A.Phillips & D.Ingram beat J.Robb & S.Shah 15-10
A.Lumbard & C.Lumbard beat H.Etherington & O.Rushton 15-5
K.Hird & L.Keates beat V.Kassardjian & S.Balaji 15-5
A.Lumbard & C.Lumbard beat A.Phillips & D.Ingram 15-10
K.Hird & L.Keates beat A.Lumbard & C.Lumbard 15-9
S.Gupta & J.Tu beat C.Cooley & M.Williams 12-8
J.Robb & S.Shah beat H.Etherington & O.Rushton 12-7
S.Gupta & J.Tu beat J.Robb & S.Shah 12-11
H.Gardner & K.Lower beat S.Kelly & A.Lewthwaite 15-10
M.Chinery & G.Howard beat M.Davis & J.Branchflower 15-7
T.Leach & J.Michalski beat G.Stanhope & A.Bishop 15-13
Ab.Bhattacharya & N.Lilienthal beat S.Allen & A.Marshall-Rice 15-9
H.Gardner & K.Lower beat M.Chinery & G.Howard 15-14
T.Leach & J.Michalski beat Ab.Bhattacharya & N.Lilienthal 15-8
T.Leach & J.Michalski beat H.Gardner & K.Lower 15-3
Ab.Bhattacharya & N.Lilienthal beat M.Chinery & G.Howard 12-7
Plate A1 (Plate A quarter-finalists)
M.Davis & J.Branchflower beat S.Kelly & A.Lewthwaite 12-5
S.Allen & A.Marshall-Rice beat G.Stanhope & A.Bishop w/o
M.Davis & J.Branchflower beat S.Allen & A.Marshall-Rice 12-8
Plate B (The "Archie" plate)
1. W.Davidson & A.Butler
2. A.Cameron-Blackie & A.Thomas-Verweij
3. J.Formige & M.Gilardini
4. A.Magnus & P.Dooley
5. M.Williams & A.Patterson