The courts now stand eerily quiet, almost still echoing with the efforts, elation and anguish of the last week. Looking at them now, it is difficult to believe that at this time yesterday they were loud with the action and activity of the Nationals. I find myself looking back on a week with the full mixture of emotions, with my nerves in shreds after two days of tension that made Alfred Hitchcock look like Walt Disney.
It does seem aeons ago that I headed out to the courts on a Sunday morning to inspect their condition: the weather was not kind at the start of the week, but fortunately all the white stuff that had fallen, had fallen mercifully close to the vertical: the floors were dry. The usual marquee had not yet been erected, for fear it would be crushed! The scene that greeted me corroborated that decision.
It was going to be a chilly week! Masters-in-charge were frequently to be heard wailing that last year’s championships had seen temperatures of up to 24C. Hats, gloves and scarves would be the order this year. The wails abated slightly on the discovery that Quod was open and stocked with some of the richest hot chocolate in the northern hemisphere.
The Shrewsbury School Fives courts on the morning of the Schools’ National Championships 2013
Despite the skyfull of snow that had got lost in the arctic circle, taken a wrong turn at the Basingstoke roundabout and fallen across the midlands, only two pairs of the entire entry to day one didn’t manage the journey (though some who did had spent some yards of it freed from the usual friction-dominated interaction between their car tyres and the road). We started a little later than anticipated but with a large and keen group of competitors in the U15 tournament.
The day ran well for the competitors, with four Shrewsbury pairs in the last 16 and two in the quarter-finals despite a few notable players falling casualty to family holiday plans. Second pair Matt White ad Luke Lloyd-Jones lost 12-13 in the deciding game, just missing out on a semi-final spot; they had played comfortably the best fives I’ve ever seen from either of them, Luke returned cut like a man possessed and they really showed themselves to be big tournament players. Keep an eye on these two for the future, as well as a number of others in the cohort who have made some superb progress this season. In the semis, Jack Fox and George Panayi had a wobbly start, losing the first game 12-13 to Eton 2. This fired them up though, and with renewed focus and now in attack mode, they blew the opposition away for two games: 12-3, 12-4. Neither did they lose nerve: though Eton fought well, George was too fast, tall and strong and Jack too accurate from the back of court. Shrewsbury won the fourth game 12-8 to bag themselves a place in the final. Meanwhile and not to be outdone, the Churchillian brothers-in-fun Arthur Bowen and Henry Newbould destroyed all before them in the plate competition and thus took home the first trophies of the week. Cheerful on the outside but really rather competitive underneath it, those two!
Meanwhile, however, Sunday was past and with Monday the U16s competition had begun. George Lewis was playing with Tom Breese at first pair, Tom having been promoted from the U15s for the second half of the season and having been up to the task. The Nationals are a sterner test than school matches though and both would find questions asked of them. Second pair was due to be Fred Earlam and Fred Adair, but they fell foul of the Master in charge by getting the balance and timing of competitive focus and relaxed downtime wrong and were sent home. Their hangovers were probably nothing compared to having to face their mothers. The result was that all hopes for reaching the later stages really were pinned on the first pair – though this was very nearly proved wrong by Jamie Humes and Ollie Nolan. We know that Jamie has the pedigree to play at a high standard but didn’t think Ollie would be consistent enough, but they played an absolute blinder against top seeds Harrow, losing in straight games but 13-15, 3-12, 12-14, Harrow having to work far harder than they did in the ensuing quarter-final. George and Tom, through to Tuesday’s quarters, had a difficult route through the draw from their fourth seed position. The match against 5th seeded Highgate was, we thought in retrospect when it finished, just the game they needed to get into the tournament and settle. They lost the first game11-14 but battled back and won 12-9, 14-12, 12-6, looking ever better. This set them up for a semi-final against Harrow.
Monday was the day of the shovel - great avalanches of snow fell from the roof around midday and had to be cleared back to a safe distance. No-one was struck!
Many of our senior boys and girls also arrived on Monday afternoon for the mixed competition, starting at 4pm. We are traditionally quite strong in this and indeed our top two pairs reached the semi-finals before both going out to good Highgate pairs.
On Monday evening – in an excellent idea presented to me by George Panayi during the day – we all went down for a curry in town. The seniors had arrived and the U16s were almost all still around so it was the best evening for a team event. The evening out was enjoyed by all, especially Ed Barn, who got a good seat and may not have gone directly home when our minibus got back.
So to Tuesday and the start of the Open competition. We had hopes of at least three pairs doing well in this, but understood that we could just as well have none perform on the day! Guy Williams and Henry Blofield had not played well together for weeks (but are known to be able to pull out a good performance in tournaments), Harry Flowers and Charlie White had similarly had good and bad matches and Harry B-D and Elliott Christie can be more volatile than NASA’s finest fuel. Shrewsbury 4 (Nick Pearce & Antony Peel) and 5 (Quirk & Hulse) also made it out of their groups. Quirk & Hulse couldn’t rattle St Olave’s 3 in the second round; Peel & Pearce made it easily to the third round but then met top seeds Eton 1. Pearce & Peel had had a close game against second seeds Harrow in the pools; though they lost, they took from Harrow any air of invincibility their seeding might convey. This was clearly going to be a very open tournament!
Harry B-D and Elliott had had a good pool and had left all their constituent parts and surroundings intact through the pools and round 2. They got the tough draw of Harrow in the third round, but were willing to attack. And it paid off – Harrow were off guard and the match was a good one. 13-15 Harrow the first, then 7-12 Harrow and though 2-0 down, Harry and Elliott kept playing their shots and came very close: 10-13 in the third. In the end, Harrow – now no longer sleeping as they had been in the pools but playing their best fives – were just strong enough to hold us off.
Harry Flowers and Charlie White had started the tournament with precisely the desired result in the pools – according to script and pre-tournament targets, they turned over 4th seeds St Olave’s 1 in their group, thus giving them a seeding spot themselves. They subsequently cruised through St Olave’s 2 (12-1, 12-1, 12-2) in the third round but were drawn against Harrow in Quarters the following day.
Guy and Blo were unperturbed by their pool. Harry F and Charlie White did ensure that their third round draw was against the deposed Olavian top pair, but they came through that game 12-9, 12-8, 13-12 and got the confidence of beating a decent pair before going into the Wednesday quarter-final against Westminster.
From this stage of the week, various knock-out matches of other competitions are being played before, during or after the day’s main competition. So Tuesday morning had seen the final of the U15s tournament, with Jack Fox and George Panayi looking to lift the first cup for Shrewsbury and with an Eton pair standing in their way. The match was to start early and the Head Master had come along to watch a little and was in perfect time to give them a pep talk. As he did so, SKPC had the great misfortune of being the only person at the tournament known to have been victim to a judiciously timed falling of snow – by now mostly ice – from the roof. And he wasn’t wearing a hat. Fortunately the M-i-C fives brushes off such attacks with stoic disdain, even if they do knock off his glasses. Nonetheless, back to Panaya and Fox, who if you remember had a 3-1 win against Eton 2 in their semi-final. We note that Eton’s two pairs were of a very similar standard this year – indeed they had been the other way around until a result between them a week earlier. Our plan: go in hard, play fast, play early; never give them a sniff! We took the first game 12-7 doing precisely that and followed up taking the second 12-4. Papaya now had the wind in his sails and Fox assisted magnificently, finding length on his approaches from the back court as they took the third game and the tournament 12-6. It had been a well-fought game by the Eton pair, who didn’t give much away but were just outpowered by George who, being citius, altius and fortius, did indeed look the Olympian in this tournament.
George Panayi and Jack Fox forget to look happy on winning the U15 competition!
George then cheerfully went on to play in the Open competition for the day with Ed Barnard as a wildcard pair. From what I saw of him, he was playing a very statesmanlike game, rightly revelling in his new National Champion status. Indeed he was to stay in Shrewsbury all week, providing entertainment, company and moral support to the rest of the side.
Tuesday’s other knock-out rounds were the U16 quarter-finals whose results are already noted above.
Wednesday: Shrewsbury was invaded from all angles by the Third Form. Eleven pairs played on Wednesday in the U14 tournament and on Thursday in the U14 beginners. The former is something of a warm-up for us and it is usually dominated by Highgate. This year was no exception: we got three pairs through the pools, including the wild-card pair of Nick Davis and Michael Schutzer-Weissmann, who as Shrewsbury 11 managed to get out of a pool which included Highgate 1! However, they were unable to make any impression in their next match against St Olaves 1. Shrewsbury 3, Jesse Mattinson and Max Morris, having lost to Highgate 7 in their pool, went through in second place, where they fell to Berkhamsted1. Meanwhile Shrewsbury 1, Adam Aslam-Baskeyfield and Ed Chapman, effortlessly eased through their pool and then squeezed past Ipswich 1 12-8, 12-10, before falling to a Highgate pair in the 3rd Round. All the pairs played more matches in the plate competitions and gained vast amounts of experience for Beginners’ Competition the next day. It is worth highlighting the efforts of Shrewsbury 2, Dan and Ross Orchard, and Shrewsbury 8, Freddie Fielding and Jonty Schofield, who made good progress in the afternoon winning several matches and reaching the latter stages of the Plate Competitons.
U16 semi-finals and Open quarters were also billed for the day and this is where matches can become battles, where mental resilience can be worth just as much as technique and where serious players need to stand up and be counted. Four such players were George Lewis, Tom Breese and Harrow’s top U16 pair in their semi-final. They were playing on the river end court, biology side which, as anyone who has watched much fives at Shrewsbury will tell you, is the coldest place on the entire site to watch any sporting endeavour. Meanwhile White & Flowers were on against Harrow 1 in the Open and Williams & Blofield played Westminster. All go! Williams & Blofield won 3-0 without any scares. Harrow’s sleeping giant apparently woke up overnight to his coaches’ eternal relief and they stormed past White and Flowers, leaving me wishing they could have played on Tuesday evening. Whatever that Harrovian had for breakfast is going straight onto my Championships menu. That leaves Lewis and Breese, who lost the first game 7-12 though it had been close for most of it. They had just lacked accuracy on the approach and volley (Tom Breese’s right glove was better padded out than a Hebridean sheep preparing for a particularly harsh winter) and gave away a few points towards the end. They came back fighting though, and won a similar second game 12-8. Both had been decided by unforced errors from the losing pair. George and Tom looked to be on a roll now and to my delight (a few fingers were suffering suspected frostbite) took the third 12-5 to go into a 2-1 lead. The fourth was a bizarre game: we took a 7-0 lead and were probably starting to think about holding it and closing out but Harrow pegged it back to 7-7. It then crept point-by point to 10-10 (always 10-10!) and 14-14 but Harrow nicked it 14-15. There was a brief respite for my hands as I gave Harry Flowers (showered, packed, changed after finishing a match, to give some idea of how long this semi was going on) a double-quick lift down to the station; in fact this could have been during the third game, memory fails! I missed only about eight points scored due to the round trip. I felt George and Tom had the ability but the Harrow pair were returning more than we expected and were staying in rallies, when our shots were wayward it allowed them to find level footing again and it was keeping them firmly in the game: we desperately needed to find greater accuracy to kill the ball. The fifth game was neck and neck (my left hand had become a block of ice), typically, as both sides had tightened up on unforced errors and every point was being contested vigorously. George Panayi was unable to contain himself at the back of court and became a one-man menagerie, moaning like a grieving sea lion when a rally went badly, sometimes augmenting this expression by hopping up and down like a demented wallaby. And the rest of us were not much better! The game went to 10-10, of course, and was set to 15. These were tense times at the back of court (I would definitely much rather be on court at times like these than spectating). George was showing real class and pulled out some glorious shots and Tom picked off some early volleys which took Harrow by surprise; we scored a few points relatively quickly and ran out 15-11 winners in the 5th. I am fairly sure the game had been on for around three hours (it finished at 8:20pm), and that was just the semi-final. Eton had been confirmed as finalists a good long while previously. Time to defrost, relax and wonder about supper. The boys ordered pizza!
The U14s had their big day on Thursday; we knew Eton and Harrow to be strong this year. We have good numbers of very keen and sound players though and this was borne out when six of our pairs got through to the last 16. Unfortunately just two made it to the quarters, though Shrewsbury4, Josh Himsworth and George Pearce, came very close against Q E Barnet 1, just missing out 11-12 in the first and third games. In the quarters both of our pairs met Harrovians; Ross and Dan Orchard had performed well over the two days, but found Harrow 1 too strong for them. Ed Chapman and Adam Aslam-Baskeyfield showed themselves not outclassed in their match against Harrow 2 and came close, losing 12-13 in the second: this is very promising and I look forward to seeing their progression next year. There was greater success in the plate competitions; in Plate A, Shrewsbury 8, Freddie Fielding and Jonty Schofield, bettered their performance of the previous day by reaching the final, where they defeated Shrewsbury 6, Will Bedson and Pat Jacob. Meanwhile there was another all Shrewsbury final in Plate B, which resulted in victory in three grueling sets to Shrewsbury 3, Jesse Mattinson and Max Morris, over Radbrook rivals, Shrewsbury 5, George Hargrave and Sam McLoughlin.
Meanwhile I had calmed down just enough from the U16 semi-final to be ready to cope with the final, starting at lunchtime. Tom Breese at this stage decided that a further bruised hand was a risk he was willing to take to give him the usual control of shot. The Etonians are a good pair who will not tire nor concede many points; we are a more attacking, more risk-taking outfit and the questions to be answered were whether Tom could be consistent and level-headed enough and George able to dominate the court successfully. Much like our semi-final, the final started off neck and neck, but we nabbed the first game 12-9. Eton however won the second with the same scoreline. This is where the match began in earnest, with each point a minor victory and a run of a few points being a game-winning event. Both pairs denied each other any of these runs and the pressure on them was huge; unforced errors are enormously expensive. The next game we sensed could be crucial, and it was just as close as the previous two; indeed closer at the close as the scores reached 10-10 and the game was almost inevitably set to 15. George Panayi could have passed for an entire sector of London Zoo. Points were scored; individual nerves were being extracted from me and carefully stamped on; the process was repeated thirty seconds later with a new rally, a fresh battle. George and Tom pulled through 15-13. To a fourth game, with advantage Shrewsbury. I don’t know why I watch the first two thirds of these games as the progression to 10-10 seems by now pretty much a given. It purely serves to set the scene for the last ten minutes. But 10-all it once again became and, again, 15 was the new target set. If memory serves (and given the damage being done to my nervous system by each nail-biting point it is perfectly possible that memory does not serve), George and Tom took a lead here and reached 14 and match point. Eton, however, were never going to lie down and they cut superbly through (I think Grant counted) close to 11 hands (so 22 match points) to deny us the finish. There may have been two rallies on match point. There may have been tension. David Attenborough may have turned up with an entire Out of Africa film crew to document George Panayi’s behaviour. Eton pulled back to 14-14 and had both the momentum and the confidence that they could cut us down. They did, we didn’t and Eton took the fourth 15-14. Does it always have to be five games? Why must it be five games? My delicate disposition can’t cope with too many of these a week. Falling snow and ice: yes; dramatic, emotional and nervous tension stretched out longer than a Lord of the Rings director’s cut marathon: difficult. I was in need of a class A relaxant and George Panayi was re-building the Earth’s ecosystems from scratch. Lewis and Breese seemed unfazed though – all right for them, they would have felt they had some control over proceedings! Indeed control was precisely what they found. I think they took pity on my ragged-looking nerves (a butcher’s mincer would be proud of having done such a comprehensive job) and took a strong lead in the fifth. This time Eton could not pin them at 11; George and Tom both got tight to the buttress, took the ball early and closed out the game, match and tournament with a 12-6 win. More silverware to Shrewsbury!
George Lewis and Tom Breese remember to look happy after their U16s victory
Respite needed for the coaches, but none accorded: the court having been cleared after the presentation, the Open competition semi-final pitting Guy and Henry against top seeds Eton went straight on. Merciless. We had come close to various configurations of Eton’s players through the season but never won. Again, we knew it possible but both Salopians would have to pull out a good game: James Piggot cuts off anything inaccurate and Charlie Fairbanks Smith retrieves very well and keeps the ball in play. Shrewsbury were fast out of the blocks though and drew first blood with a 12-5 win. This had happened down at Eton and drawn an impressive response of waking up the Etonian pair. Indeed we need to work on holding on to an advantage and making the second game hard work: Eton came back and won that one 12-5 in reply. Once again (oh not again!) we were in a match that either pair could win or lose. We needed Guy not just to have quick reflexes volleying out of the buttress, but to be accurate with the shot as well; we needed Henry to be quick onto volleys and to find his length. We drifted through the third keeping things close as ever but made a few errors towards the end of it and allowed Eton to take it 12-9. The fourth was looking identical and though the score was 7-7 I wasn’t optimistic that Guy and Blo would be more consistent under the pressure than Eton were. At this stage though, the whole tournament took a turn: a firmly hit straight shot towards the buttress by Henry went straight into James Piggot’s eye, causing him blurred vision. The game stopped as we assessed James’ situation and, when his vision was still not clear after ten minutes, decided it prudent he should go to hospital and have it looked at. Shrewsbury agreed that if he was declared fit to play, the game could be resumed the following morning, allowing for an afternoon final. Fortunately James was declared clear of any permanent damage, though there was some peripheral bruising to his retina. Less fortunately, the drops that had been used to dilate the pupil and allow a proper look at his eye had not allowed his vision to return fully the following morning. His vision still being blurred, Eton were forced to concede the match. That was a huge blow for Charlie Fairbanks Smith in particular: as first seeds, Eton had strong chances and this was his final year. A real chance to win the Public Schools’ Nationals had been taken from him. Shrewsbury were to play Harrow in the final.
So on Friday morning only a few competition finals remained to be played and the only one Shrewsbury had outstanding was the Open, starting at 10:30am. Guy and Blo were up for this and got the usual Salopian flying start, then battled to hold off a resurgent Harrow: we reached 11 first but they drew level, we set the game to 14 and held nerve to win 14-12. In the second, the game was again close throughout but it was Harrow’s term to reach 10 first, then 11 and though we pulled back to 11-10 they snuck it 12-10. One game each. Harrow were playing with good accuracy and picking off volleys; our chance was going to be taking the ball early, playing fast and using angles to make Harrow retrieve from low. We needed to be disciplined in not playing to their strengths. In the third game it was their accuracy that won out as we didn’t make them move enough to play their shots: 12-7 Harrow. It was going to be a long way back, with the Harrovians now playing increasingly confidently and gaining a lead in the 4th. Despite battling on throughout, we lost that game and the match 12-7. A good match but ultimately won by Harrow’s greater accuracy into the buttress and picking off our approach shots. Guy had not managed to convert his U16s win of two years earlier. Henry will be back next year.
Guy Williams and Henry Blofield: Open competition runners-up
My thanks are due to Sue Laister and Darren Wood and their teams who did huge amounts of work to make sure Shrewsbury could host the tournament so successfully. Thanks also to KH for looking after us very well indeed: the steady supply of hot chocolate in Quod was particularly appreciated given the conditions.
National Schools' Championships: The Ladies' Competitions and the Mixed Fives
Andy Barnard reports:
At this year's Championships we competed in three events: the Ladies' Open Competition; the Ladies' Festival; and the Mixed Pairs.
In the Ladies Open, Rosie Parr (capt) and Hannah Pritchard advanced to the quarter finals, played brilliantly but narrowly lost (12-9, 12-11) to Highgate 3. The following day they beat Highgate 5 in a 5th/6th place play-off to claim our highest ever finish and a Plate Trophy. Elen Murphy and Alice Paul didn’t manage a quarter-final spot but they also progressed to a Plate Final, which they won on the Sunday night. A just reward for all their hard work over two years.
In the Ladies' Festival (replacing the U17s Beginners Cup) we entered five pairs (three U6th and two L6th) and produced the winners in the shape of Elen Murphy and Alice Paul. Two successes in two days capped off their career at Shrewsbury and went a long way to overcoming the disappointment of losing to Rosie and Hannah in the U17s final in 2012. Becky Home and Tilly Whittingham, Holly Free and Cressida Adams, Jo Cull and Charlotte Harris and Gaby Byrne and Poppy Beckett all competed well despite the bitter conditions. Becky Home and Tilly Whittingham (U6th) produced their best fives for two years and won through to the semi-finals, whilst beginners Jo Cull and Charlotte Harris made great progress in also gaining a semi-final place.
In the Mixed Competition our 1st pair (Rosie Parr and Guy Williams) and 2nd pair (Hannah Pritchard and Henry Blofield) both progressed to the semi-finals where they lost out to strong Highgate pairs. In this event we are getting closer every year but the girls still have a long way to go. Greater emphasis on technique will eventually bring success, but it may be two or three years off. Our 4th pair (Elen Murphy and Harry Flowers) gained a quarter-final spot before losing 12-3 to Highgate 1, the eventual winners.
This was a strong Championship for Shrewsbury School and the L6th class of 2013 will do well to gain equivalent success next year. But I am certain that the 14 ‘regulars’ who started off their career this year will do all they can to further raise the profile of the sport. As we prepare to accept 13-year-old girls at School, I am sure that Fives will continue to attract more and more girls to the courts. The presence of Sixth Form girls over the past five years have made our Fives courts the envy of all Fives-playing schools across the country.