Cambridge Win The Universities Mixed
29/01/24: Cambridge won the Universities Mixed title at Highgate on Sunday for the first time since 2015.
Having not been held in 2023, it was a pleasure to welcome back the Universities Mixed tournament to Highgate last Sunday. There was a strong turnout of 14 pairs, with Cambridge providing eight of them, Oxford three, Oxford Brookes and Imperial one each and a hybrid Sheffield/Imperial pair completing the line-up.
One of the features of this year's tournament - especially compared to some previous editions - was the high number of players who have learned their Fives at university, with only one of the fourteen pairs containing two players who had both learned to play at school. One of the consequences of this - and the absence of a couple of Oxford's top women players - was that there were no strong favourites at the start of the day, with perhaps half of the field harbouring realistic hopes of going all the way and getting their hands on the trophy.
The initial sorting out was done in the group phase, with two groups of five and one group of four looking to produce eight quarter-finalists. There were some interesting results straight away, with the most eye-catching ones happening in Group A; the Imperial pair of Westway's Abilash Sivathasan and novice Thabina Mohan ran Cambridge 3 (Lewis Drummond & Emilia Collinson) close in the first game, before going one better in the next round, winning 12-8 against Cambridge 2 (Jamie Levinson & Emma Spencer). Cambridge 3 then really put the cat amongst the pigeons with a resounding 12-5 win over Oxford 1 (Beau Swallow & Vita Love), with Emilia winning the cut and return battle convincingly and Lewis playing a smart, controlled game to overturn a fancied pair and take top spot in the group. Beau & Vita subsequently recovered well, taking second place with wins over Imperial and Cambridge 2, consigning the Light Blue second string to the Plate along with Cambridge 7 (Miraj Ahmed & Laura Elcock), but leaving themselves with a tougher quarter-final draw.
Group B was a little more straightforward. Theodore Seely & Alex Davies (Cambridge 1) dominated proceedings, winning all four of their matches comfortably. The Imperial/Sheffield pairing of Nadia Mason & James Wheale didn't quite hit top gear but did enough to hold off their challengers to finish second, with Cambridge 4 (Jamie Lai & Alice Rothwell) taking the final qualifying spot. Oxford 3's Rachel McCormack has only been playing for two weeks, but made a good impression on her first competitive outing alongside Hatam Barma, taking 6 points off both Cambridge 4 and Cambridge 6 (Alexander Davies & Jenna Frost).
The group of four produced the two expected qualifiers, with Oxford 2 (Joel Robb & Alice Simmonds) and Oxford Brookes (Dominic Mcloughlin & Darcy Clarke) making short work of the two inexperienced Cambridge pairs, 5 (Tom Ford & Anjali Mistry) and 8 (Conal Lowe & Anna Fitzpatrick). The showdown between them for top spot had the makings of a thriller, but Darcy & Dom never really got going and with Alice returning cut well, Joel was able to tale control and put them through in top spot.
The impressive form of Cambridge 3 in the morning meant that they were up against Cambridge 4 in the first quarter-final while the Light and Dark Blue first pairs played each other at an earlier stage in the competition than anticipated. Lewis & Emilia continued to gel effectively with a comfortable win over Cambridge 4 while it was the Cambridge first pair who came out on top in their game, a long and tight match possibly decided by one crucial hand in the middle of the game that gave Theodore & Alex a lead that they never relinquished, much to Beau & Vita's disappointment.
Dark Blue hopes now rested with Joel & Alice and they continued to look strong with a 15-7 win over Imperial in their quarter-final, while the last semi-final place was taken by Oxford Brookes, who held off a late charge by James & Nadia to defeat Imperial/Sheffield 15-13. Joel & Alice now had the opportunity to succeed where Beau & Vita had failed and deny Cambridge 1 a place in the final. This was a fantastic match, with Joel and Theodore trading blows and Alice and Alex belying their relative inexperience, both producing a strong set piece and solid defence from the back of the court. Both pairs were fully aware of the mixed rule that only allows the man to serve once, with equal importance being placed on the frequency with which Joel & Theodore were able to take the single serving point on offer to them each time and on the importance of capitalising on a successful return of cut from their partners, which not only produced a valuable point, but also opened up the possibility of another and even a potentially match winning run of points. There was little to choose between the two pairs throughout; Oxford generally had their noses in front until they reached 11, at which point momentum switched and Cambridge caught up and then got to 14 first before Oxford quickly levelled again at 14-14. Both sides missed a couple of chances to win; Alice then produced two nerveless unreturned gameball cuts in a row before Joel closed the match out in Oxford's favour with a well-placed winner to the back left bricks.
Although their first pair had missed out on the final by the narrowest of margins, Cambridge's hopes were still high: Emilia & Lewis had hit the ground running right from the start of the day and hadn't let up; Oxford Brookes were their latest victims, beaten 15-9 in the other semi-final as the combination of Lewis's accuracy and consistency and Emilia's athleticism and cut-returning prowess proved too much for Dominic & Darcy.
An Oxford v Cambridge final was perhaps not that much of a surprise, but not many would have put big money at the start of the day on the final being between Oxford's second pair and Cambridge's third! Both pairs fully deserved their place in the final, however, and the match they produced was another thriller that could easily have gone either way. Joel & Alice had been ahead for most of their semi before having to come from behind to snatch it at the death; for most of the final they trailed before closing the gap towards the end. It almost looked for a moment as if history was about to repeat itself as Oxford saved match points at 12-14 down before getting to 13-14 on their serve. This time, though, the 14th point proved elusive and it was Lewis & Emilia who were able to finish things off, taking the final point to win 15-13 and break a run of Oxford victories in the tournament that goes back to 2018. This was a great result for Cambridge men's captain Lewis, who played calmly, intelligently and accurately all day and also a statement performance from Emilia Collinson, who only started playing this year but who has reached a formidably high standard in a very short space of time. Definitely one to watch out for!
The minor placings were all being tidied up while this was going on, Oxford 1 finishing on a high with two wins to take 5th place and Cambridge 2 saving some face with a win in Plate A. Rachel McCormack showed how much she had improved during the day as she and Hatam won Plate B for Oxford 3, avenging a 6-12 group stage defeat at the hands of Cambridge 6 with a 12-10 victory in the Plate B final.
My thanks go to Highgate for hosting the competition, to the Jesters for their sponsorship/travel subsidy and to all of those who came and played. Mixed Fives is a huge amount of fun and this tournament was absolute proof of that and was played in the very best spirit. It was also a shining example of what can be achieved by players who have not played at school and taken the game up at university, with high standards being reached despite the lack of experience on show.
Cambridge 3 (L.Drummond & E.Collinson) beat Cambridge 4 (J.Lai & A.Rothwell) 15-7
Oxford Brookes (D.Mcloughlin & D.Clarke) beat Sheffield/Imperial (J.Wheale & N.Mason) 15-13
Cambridge 1 (T.Seely & A.Davies) beat Oxford 1 (B.Swallow & V.Love) 15-11
Oxford 2 (J.Robb & A.Simmonds) beat Imperial (A.Sivathasan & T.Mohan) 15-7
Cambridge 3 beat Oxford Brookes 15-9
Oxford 2 beat Cambridge 1 15-14
Cambridge 3 beat Oxford 2 15-13
Oxford 1 beat Cambridge 4 15-4
Sheffield/Imperial beat Imperial 15-14
Oxford 1 beat Sheffield/Imperial 15-6
Cambridge 4 beat Imperial 15-12
Cambridge 2 (J.Levinson & E.Spencer) beat Cambridge 5 (T.Ford & A.Mistry) 12-9
Oxford 3 (H.Barma & R.McCormack) beat Cambridge 6 (A.Davies & J.Frost) 12-10
Shared between Cambridge 7 (M.Ahmed & L.Elcock) and Cambridge 8 (C.Lowe & A.Fitzpatrick)