Nonetheless we’ve still hoped to get a champion for each of these cohorts, so with eased restrictions (notably for outdoor sport and for movement around the country) we set a date for Monday and Tuesday of half term.
With some of the top seeded pairs in both competitions unavailable on those dates, the competitions were to be qualifying for a later finals day, the date of which remains to be confirmed. Our top senior pairs had been on court whenever time and other sports training allowed, so were ready, and Peter Clark (Rb, 2019)had been coaching for us last term and on court fairly frequently so was well set to nurse Arthur Garrett (Ch, 2019) back into form over the Tuesday.
On both days there was a relatively small but high-quality field: on Monday 9 pairs competed in two groups. No match would allow the players to relax and, after a cool wet May, temperatures suddenly shot to almost Mediterranean levels; this in combination with a glass roof made for a physically pretty tough day. Our pairs though, are nothing if not fine athletes and the day was going to be equally difficult for the opposition.
Both pairs made it out of their groups to knock-out stages, in which the first place from one group played fourth place from the other, and second played third. Shrewsbury’s second pair - Nick A (SH, LVI) and Jago A (SH, LVI) - met the St Olave’s 1 pair, who had gone through second after losing to Shrewsbury 1 - Rory M-O (PH, LVI) and Digby T-W (I, LVI). This was just too great a challenge as Nick’s cold (on the hottest day of the year?) kicked in – though they battled honourably it was not to be. Rory and Digby, meanwhile, had relished the testing group games and found their best for the knockouts.
The final knockout round for the day saw two pairs undefeated: Shrewsbury 1 had taken St Olave’s’ position in the top seeding spot and played Eton, while Olave’s 2 now faced St Olave’s 1. Eton, after their comeback in a long match against Harrow, played Shrewsbury 1, who had beaten them in the group stages. Eton had been gaining on confidence and consistency and the first game proved a real battle, Shrewsbury eventually edging it 14-12. At this stage, Eton’s hard work to this point started to catch up with them and they were visibly less able to chase down retrieves and change direction. The rallies therefore increasingly fell in Shrewsbury’s favour: after long battles for any points at the start of game 2, Shrewsbury put together some dominant phases of play and took the second and third games by margins which looked more comfortable on paper than the battle for them had seemed, watching it live. In the other match, St Olave’s 1 came through (less comfortably) against their 2nd pair, meaning that Digby and Rory were the only pair unbeaten on the day.
If the 2021 Schools’ Open had been delayed, the 2020 had been in a back corner of the freezer for a few months. But if ever there was a day to defrost it quickly, Tuesday 1st of June was it: surpassing even Monday’s heat, the forecast was for 25 degrees, cloudless and sunny and at 10am the courts were already in full sunshine. So idyllic was the day, the railway system had got a train away five minutes early.
Five pairs (two from St Olave’s and one each from Shrewsbury, Ipswich and Highgate) were due to play in this qualifying day, with two strong pairs (one Eton, one St Olave’s) unavailable. One group was planned with each pair playing every other in a best of 3 game. With two pairs delayed by the railway shenanigans, play started a little later than planned with the on-court temperature rising. And the competition ignited straight away: both first-round games were well contested, went to 1-1 and became protracted battles. Highgate came through against Ipswich having started first of the two matches; St Olave’s 2, in touch having been on court the previous day in the 2021 tournament, pushed Shrewsbury all the way in the first two games before the Salopians (Peter Clark and Arthur Garrett) found their stride, coming through 12-11, 9-12, 12-2. It was 1pm by the time the second round started so the danger of a late finish looked quite real.
In the group it was St Olave’s, Highgate and Shrewsbury who came through their battles and looked to be the pairs to fight it out for the top spot. The first meeting between these came in round 3, when Highgate took on St Olave’s 1. After the inevitable exchange of the first two games, it was the lower unforced error count of St Olave’s that won out in the decider. In the next round, Highgate faced Shrewsbury. The match stood out for unorthodox positionings with three left-handers on court (indeed when the schools had met in the Lent term of 2019 all four players were southpaws). Shrewsbury took a close first game; in the second Highgate went to an 8-0 lead and held most of the lead to win 12-6. In the decider it was Shrewsbury, cutting and returning well, who pressed on and won conclusively: in one phase when Peter seemed unable to miss the pepperpot, Arthur’s call was that it was simply exhibition fives from his partner.
In the last match of the day, then, well after 6pm with the temperature starting to approach bearable, the two undefeated pairs from St Olave’s and Shrewsbury met each other. Again, there were three left-handers on court and all were now well into their groove intercepting around the buttress and finding sharp volleys into it. Both Peter and Arthur for Shrewsbury retrieved stubbornly and Peter’s accuracy counter-punching in the buttress was telling. St Olave’s took the first game 12-6 but Shrewsbury responded with grit to take the second 12-7, so yet again we were in for a decider. This time Shrewsbury dug in to make a few consecutive returns of cut and maybe the two days in the heat started to take their toll on the Olavians’ legs as the Salopians ran away with the decider, finishing the day on top of the pile.
It had been a long day and a test of match fitness as well as skill, which saw excellent fight from all pairs throughout the day. All had some good, close games and hopefully enjoyed their day. The timing of finals day is yet to be confirmed but an oddity remains possible: that the winners of this competition might be holders for a negative amount of time, since there’s every chance the 2021 competition will be completed before the 2020 one!
While these were two good and successful days for Shrewsbury, it was a great shame not to be able to offer participation, particularly to our departing Upper 6th formers: usually their last Nationals would be something of a rite of passage, forming memories to tie together all of their away weekends over their years at the school. We hope we will see them back in Shrewsbury sometime next season to give them the send-off they’ve deserved.
Master in Charge of Fives