Eton win two Rackets finals at Queens

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If yesterday the honours were shared between Eton and St Paul’s the same was not true at Queens today. The Eton College rackets players won both their finals and so completed a remarkable week at the Queens Club.

In the Second Pairs final this morning the Eton pair of George Loup and Ed Rowell were matched against the Harrow 2nd pair (Prenn and de Silva). These finals on the Bridgeman Court can often be scrappy, “hell-for-leather” affairs but in this particular match the overall standard of play was high for much of the time. There were several long exchanges between Rowell and de Silva with both boys hitting the ball cleanly around the walls and to a good length. Loup’s serving was impressive throughout and the powerful backhand serve he has worked on for five years from the right hand service box won us several crucial points at key moments.

The early stages of the match were closely contested and the first game lasted a considerable period of time. Eton built up a 12-9 lead but we weren’t serving with any conviction and strong play from de Silva allowed them to reach 12-12. Harrow closed out the first game with a few good points winning it 15-12, Prenn dominating play following his powerful serve. The start of the second game saw us serving with more purpose and we quickly built up a early lead. Loup was finding a pace of serve that was keeping the ball close to the back of the court and Rowell was getting more cut on his forehand serves. Eton quickly won the second game 15-3 to level the match. This pattern of Eton dominance continued for two more games with our pair playing some high quality rackets that often involved Rowell volleying the ball halfway up the court on the forehand side and Loup playing with composure on the backhand. At this stage Eton had a three games to one lead and were one game from victory. The fifth game saw Harrow starting to pick their standards up again and cracks were beginning to show in the Eton pair’s play. Loup was starting to look a little tired and so wasn’t quite using his feet as effectively as earlier in the match and Rowell was getting visibly flustered with some of his play. This gave the Harrow boys the confidence to take the 5th game 15/12 and once again the match was in the balance. Losing this game was enough to allow our pair to regroup and for the sixth game, we returned to our previous high standards and as the composure returned, the ball was being struck more cleanly once again. Harrow didn’t give up for one moment in the game and were still producing the occasional blistering shot but it was clear that the balance was shifting. A series of good serves from Loup allowed Eton to close out the game 15/7 and so take the match by four games to two.

Eton beat Harrow to win the Second Pairs championship 12/15, 15/3, 15/5, 15/6, 12/15, 15/7

The final match of the week was the final of the First Pairs competition, the blue riband event of the championships. This was also an “old firm” final, the third Eton v Harrow final of the week. The Harrow pair comprised Robbie White, the player who pushed Morales so hard in the Foster Cup final, and his partner Henry Goodfellow. Although the seeding committee had made us the favourites in this match before the draws were made, people who had watched all the previous three days of competition were predicting a very close affair. Eton’s first pair Toni Morales and Charlie Braham had not really found their top form at any point in their earlier matches although in every round so far they had come up against boys playing very well indeed. A few cracks had become apparent in our doubles play and both Eton boys had made more unforced errors than one would expect.

The two Eton boys played with some nerves at the start of the final but this was certainly understandable. There was a considerable gallery watching the match at Queens and plenty of support for both pairs so the atmosphere was tense. Morales missed a couple of straightforward balls at the front of the court and Braham served a double fault in the early exchanges. Harrow established a 10-5 lead in this first game but then a passage of strong serving from Morales took us back from 6-11 to 11-11. Braham was taking the ball early and volleying well on the forehand side and this allowed us to pin the Harrow boys deeper in the court than they would have liked. The comeback in this game was completed as Eton won the first game 15-11. That we ended up winning this first game was actually less important than the fact that the early nerves had been overcome and that we were playing with a clear head. Getting the balance between high emotion and cool composure is just one of the challenges rackets players have to face every time they compete on court. In doubles play it can be too easy to allow one’s own nerves to convince you to leave the ball to your partner round the walls rather than attacking, taking responsibility and moving up the court yourself. It takes considerable nerve and bravery to position yourself in a such a vulnerable place beyond the service line with the ball flying round at you at around 100mph. It also means you have to play all the difficult shots in the rally as you have so much less time to react but it is the only way to win on the Queens courts.

The start of the second game was closely fought with neither pair able to establish a big lead. Harrow then started to hit some great winners with Goodfellow bravely getting far up the court to take the ball early. Harrow ended up winning the second game 15/12 but we made them work very hard for the game and actually won several important points in the end stages. This was perhaps the period in the match when the overall quality of play from all four boys was at its highest. There were several really long exchanges in the latter stages of game two and in doubles, this is always a sign of high quality play from all four players. In the third game Eton quickly took a 7-1 and then a 10-2 lead. Harrow got back into the service box and won some points to get to 7-11 but Braham was able to dominate two points to make it hand out and then Morales with customary composure and skill closed out the game 15-7. The balance of power in the match had truly shifted and the Harrow boys were being forced into making errors. Eton won the fourth game 15/5 to take a three games to one lead in the best of seven final.

I have seen enough of Robbie White’s rackets over the years to know that he would make a comeback at the start of the fifth game. He hit a superb winner to take us out of the service box and it is to the Eton boys credit that they were able to withstand the Harrow fightback so well. The fifth and as it turns out final game was fairly comfortable for us in the end. Harrow had several hands in the service box but we were returning well on both sides and they were finding it hard to score points. We reached match point at 14-4 and closed the match out to win the final by four games to one.

This was a most pleasing performance in the final and a great end to a successful week. Braham and Morales had produced by far their best performance of the week in the final which is commendable in itself. I thought Braham played a superb match today, steady at the times he needed to be but also willing to take the difficult balls early and to hit winners at the front. Morales showed again that he has the composure and mental strength to produce his best play at the crucial times. Both Eton players have a presence on court that makes them hard to beat: this innate will to succeed, when combined with the excellent technical and tactical coaching they receive from Peter Brake, makes them a formidable pair. There will be fresh challenges next season but now is a time for Peter and the boys to celebrate a fantastic win to end a superb rackets season.

Eton beat Harrow to win the Public Schools championship 15/11, 12/15, 15/7, 15/5, 15/4

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