The 2019 Nationals were hosted this year by Shrewsbury in the last week of the Lent Term. This made for a much more relaxed week for the Shrewsbury staff and for far fewer lessons missed by the students. This was very welcome from our point of view; rumours that a local minibus company and a hotel of a well-known chain in Slough went into administration have not been confirmed.
The entry into the tournament was nonetheless strong and overall the week ran as smoothly and as well as any I can remember; several teachers-in-charge from other schools have been in touch to commend the way the week was run. This was doubtless helped by some glorious conditions (in both 2013 and 2016 we have hosted in snow) which meant everyone was happy around the courts between games and spectating was comfortable.
The U15s kicked off proceedings on 24th March, with 11 Salopian pairs entered, seven of these qualifying from their pool. Credit is due to Harry Cooke who with Henry McGowan ran fourth seeds St Olave’s very close in the first game, narrowly missing out on a place in quarter-finals. Another week playing together might have done it. As it was we had two pairs in quarters, where Nick Argyle & Jago Ainslie drew the top seeds, Harrow. They didn’t have the firepower to win that encounter.
Rory McDonald-O'Brien & Digby Taylor-West reached the final and played Harrow in a repeat of last year’s beginners final with, sadly for us, the same result, though this year Harrow won 3-0, not 3-1. The Harrow pair have selected this as their main sport for the first two terms and we know that if we are to catch up with them next year, our boys will have to commit fully during the Lent Term.
The U16s were up next and here we knew that, having committed their Fourth Form Lent Term to football and got onto the fives courts around their football commitments this year too, Finn Sansom, Guy Gowar and Ted Davis would need to get as much court time as possible during the tournament and some close matches early on to fire them into action.
APM had put a lot of thought and juggling into finding the most effective pairings. At the last 16 stage we had two pairs left in the competition. The second pair had got past Harrow 2 to get to this stage, but came up against a strong first seed in Eton and didn’t score a point. Our first pair had had a tussle (12-8, 12-8) against Highgate 3 and drew Harrow 1 (7th seeds) in the last 16. It was just the match we needed but it took just too long to get into it: we lost 13-12 in the third.
It is always difficult to predict how the U14 Beginner tournament will go: all players are on such a steep trajectory that their response to the competitive fives during the tournament is what makes the difference in the later stages. We have three strong pairs in this year group; the pairings had been shuffling in the fortnight before to find the best combination. All three of these pairs reached quarter-finals, but some tough draws and strong opposition meant that only one (Alex Clark & George Hughes) went through to semis: something for this group to work on in future years.
Alex and George were looking strong: they got through semis despite not playing their best fives: George’s cut, devastating when it works well, was inconsistent and Alex was trying to emulate it without much success. Nonetheless, during rallies in the semi-final against Eton 2 they were manoeuvring the play competently onto their terms (promisingly these terms being the corner of the court around the buttress) and winning it here. This premise they retained in the final against a strong Eton 1. With the Open final in the nextdoor court, they did well to retain concentration. Again, they won the match in and around the buttress to claim the tournament victory.
In the Ladies’ competition we had strong pairs: our first and second pairs were a shuffling of last year’s finalists, with Sophia Breese this year playing with Emma Graham in pair 1 and Katie Oswald with Lizzie Ware in pair 2. Our third pair of Issy Wong (L6) and Fourth Former Izzy Morris knew they were dangerous, both having exceptionally strong cuts. Indeed such is our dominance at the senior ladies’ level that (perhaps helped by the home championships) we had eight pars in the last 16.
Sadly only our top three pairs named above pressed through into the quarters, but they each won their quarter, setting up a Shrewsbury 1 vs Shrewsbury 3 semi-final. This became a five-set epic finishing around 7:30 in the evening, with the younger girls eventually winning out in the decider, having lost a 2-0 lead.
Katie and Lizzie went through their semi-final more comfortably, setting up another all-Shrewsbury final, this year pair 2 against pair 3. The final, too, was a long battle. Issy and Izzy won the first game 14-13; Katie and Lizzie drew level; the youngsters roared away in the third, winning 12-3, but the Upper Sixth Formers showed fight and stamina (and possibly the previous evening’s sets were causing some fatigue). The match levelled at 2-2 and it was Katie and Lizzie who held their nerve and consistency in the 5th to take the title. Katie has thus won back-to-back Open titles and the future looks promising with the other two finalists both still with us next year.
The defeated semi-finalists in the Ladies’, Emma and Sophia, were free to concentrate on the Mixed competition, which started alongside the Ladies’ final. They were playing with the top two boys, Dan Humes and Will Sissons respectively. Of our nine pairs in the last 16, these two pulled through to semis.
The boys had had their own four-hour five-setter the previous day (more on which below), and Will in particular looked mentally drained from that battle. Nonetheless these pairs reached semi-finals: both came through against tough opposition from Highgate, thus setting up a repeat of last year’s final. This was the last match of the entire week and now, playing against friends, the pressure came off Will and Dan who were able to relax a little and play more freely. This, combined with astonishing retrieving from both girls, turned the match into a real exhibition of first-class mixed fives; some of the shots being hit by all four players would have stood out positively in an adult mixed final. Sophia and Will came through winners in the end, though of course this match too went to a deciding game!
The Boys’ Open competition had been billed as a good, open tournament all season, with most of 2018 semi-finalists having been Upper Sixth Formers. Will Sissons and Dan Humes were always our stand-out pair in the year, Will having come to us from Rydal as a Sixth Form entrant and Dan having always been well ahead of others in the year. Much depended on Dan’s fitness though: he had been struggling with back problems through the Sixth Form and had missed much of the last season with a stress fracture. After his return to sport he had still struggled with muscular pain: though it didn’t hamper his athleticism, it was a worry. Through the term it had become clear that games on consecutive days caused him discomfort; the two weeks before the Championships were given over entirely to physio work, stretching and core strength and it needed huge discipline from Dan to make sure he was fit for potentially difficult quarters, semis and, hopefully, final. The pair had done enough in the season to be seeded 2nd, though their games against 3rd seeds St Olave’s had been close and had often swung in the Olavians’ favour.
In the rest of the Open competition we had a further 14 pairs, composed of U16 pairs gaining invaluable experience, Lower Sixth entrants new to the game and Upper Sixth Formers who have come back to the game having realised they’ve missed it while out running with the Hunt or playing football. These played alongside our usual top six pairs. We even had the return to the game of Peter Clark, off for the season with his own stress fracture, back on court for the first time in the Nationals week. It was deemed most sensible to play him in a lower pair with an entrant rather than put him in a more pressurised second pair where competitive instincts might override caution with regards to his back.
Three of these pairs made it through to the last 16, our second pair missing out on quarter-finals by the narrowest of margins, losing 3-2 to seeded Highgate 2 at 7:30 on Tuesday evening. Arthur Garrett will look forward to resuming his partnership with Peter Clark next year: while they had flashes of brilliance, the unsettled nature of his partnership with Joe Kynaston meant that they were not consistent enough to dismantle a strong opponent.
Will and Dan, meanwhile, cruised through their last-16 match against Highgate 3, allowing Dan to recover and do his stretches in advance of Wednesday morning’s quarter. In this they played Eton 3, a competent pair and potential banana-skin, but an assured performance sent the Shrewsbury pair through 12-7, 12-0, 12-6, again without too much strain on bodies.
The semi-final was to be a key match against St Olave’s who, as mentioned, had sometimes been on top through the season. Will and Dan put in a strong performance on Thursday morning and, though they held with the game, the Olavians were always under pressure and chasing. Again, Shrewsbury won 3-0 and were starting to look like they were peaking at the right time.
After their semi-finals, the four finalists came together to agree a start time for the final of 9:30 on Friday morning. As is the nature of fives, this was negotiated and agreed entirely by the players themselves. What followed through that afternoon and evening was one of the strongest endorsements of Schoolboy sport I have experienced.
Eton coach, George Thomason (an Old Salopian and himself a former winner of this tournament), had unfortunately been in hospital for much of the week and had a chance of being discharged around midday on Friday. He got in touch with the Eton pair and their staff, who asked whether the final might be delayed so that he could watch. The immediate response from Will, as he tried to get in touch with Dan through the aftermath of the Ingram’s House play, was “I assume Dan will agree with me to play at 2pm - I'm sure the Eton boys would do the same if we had a coach wanting to watch”. And so it was: the final was moved to 2:30pm, which also allowed our Upper Sixth to organise an army of home supporters, since it didn’t clash with the School Assembly.
The final began to form, with both pairs scoring from the start and the first game remaining close until Shrewsbury conceded a number of points in quick succession – one of their trademarks through the term and something we had worked to correct. They didn’t recover and lost the game 9-12, then went behind 2-8 in the second. At this stage things didn’t look too positive, but rarely does a pair win this tournament without a bit of a fight, and Will and Dan were determined.
Roared on by a large home crowd, they found their returns of cut and put together some runs of points of their own, pulling back into the game to level 10-10. The final stages seemed critical and unsurprisingly, perhaps, the game reached sudden death at 12-12. It was Shrewsbury who clinched the game, perhaps crucially, as a 2-0 lead would have presented an enormous challenge.
Buoyed by this and some more outstanding returning of the cut, Shrewsbury raced to win the third 12-6. By this time the coach was live tweeting the scores, primarily to give himself something to do that didn’t involve biting his nails or indeed gnawing his fingers down to the knuckle. It seemed Shrewsbury should have the momentum into the 4th, but Eton threw everything at the game which, again, went to 10-10 and this time was set to 15. Eton raced to 14 in one hand, but Shrewsbury saved game points and pulled back to 11, 12 and 13. Just as it appeared Shrewbury might pull through, Eton found the winner they needed and levelled the match at 2-2. It was to be decided by a fifth game.
By now they were on their third ball of the match and all four players were regularly returning cut from under the front wall: unusual, but such was the level of retrieving that few cuts – and indeed few shots into the buttress – went unreturned. Will and Dan were putting into practice – as they had been throughout the match – much of the work they had done through the season on taking the pace off their approach shots into the buttress, thereby setting up more attacking chances at the front of court. Dan’s astonishing athleticism and Will’s apparently effortless movement around the court (he has been described as appearing weightless in strength and conditioning sessions by other students) kept them in points that Eton might justifiably have thought they had earned.
The fifth game, to script, also reached 10-10 after long rallies and unbelievable retrieving all round. It, too, was set to 15. This time Shrewsbury worked their way to match points and, though Eton saved one, Will and Dan converted the second to close out 15-12 and the match. It had taken four hours.
Coaches learn a lot about their players in these competitive moments and matches. And sometimes the players about their coach! But what stood out for me and for many spectators was the atmosphere on court. The four players dealt with refereeing their game to the highest of standards and showed throughout it a mutual respect that transcended even the quality of their play. Dan, in particular, had shown this in the semi-final too, insisting a let be played although the Olavian coach had overruled his pair to let them know a shot was in, since the players should decide the matter on court. The ability of the players to call objectively on their shots when there is so much at stake and they are so invested in the result marks this game apart from all their other sporting endeavours, and it gives certainly this coach an even greater pride in the players and the result that it was won so emphatically in the right spirit.
I must thank the Shrewsbury School events staff and coaches who put in so much time and care into making sure that everything was ready for hosting the tournament and helping make the week such a resounding success: it really was, for every reason I can think of, the best Nationals I can remember.
Teacher in Charge of Fives