After all the controversy and adverse publicity that accompanied the previous Public Schools Doubles tournaments in March 2014, it was good to get back to Queens for the Singles events. The Foster Cup field of sixteen featured no less than five Eton boys, including last year’s winner Toni Morales and number two seed Charlie Braham. For this correspondent at least, it was also good to see schoolboy rackets players involved who are not lucky enough to attend one of the 14 schools with their own court. The furthest traveller this year came not from Manchester, England but from Chicago, Illinois, accompanied by his coach, Will Hopton OE.
The Jim Dear Cup is named after one of Peter Brake’s predecessors as Eton Rackets professional and is for U15 and U14 players. The feeling at the start of the week was that this was an open tournament with several possible winners. In the end, the top seed from Marlborough, Dom Coulson, won a close final coming from behind, showing as earlier in the competition his ability to keep his head and remain focused for every point. Notable Eton performances in this competition included Josh Britton who reached the quarterfinal stage with three good wins. Hugo Giddins and Bertie Duncan both put up encouraging performances when they came up against the better players and all three should be pleased with what they achieved this week.
The Incledon-Webber event for U16 players was won by Alex Engstrom (St Pauls) as he reversed the result in last year’s final overcoming Ben Cawston. I was encouraged by Salil Navarpurkar‘s performances and as a late-comer to the sport and after just one term of practice, he showed himself one to watch for the future. Tom Loup was never really at his best this week and went out in disappointing fashion at the quarterfinal stage against an opponent he should have beaten. Hector Hardman played much better all week and has improved a great deal this term but lost his nerve somewhat when in a winning position in the quarterfinal against a dangerous opponent. Often players have to go through a match like this at some stage in their rackets career and I know Hector will emerge stronger next time. The courts at Queens put a premium on the ability of the players to move well, to not plant their feet too early and yet to keep taking the ball early and volley in rallies. Hector did all of this well in every round and indeed for the first part of his quarterfinal but as tension creeps in, it is easy for this to ebb away. As the match descended into longer rallies, the better movement of his opponent, Cawston around the court allowed him to gain the edge.
The Renny Cup is for U18 players. Jamie Jordache (Harrow) won the final against a good player from Cheltenham in three close games. All the Eton boys in this event performed with credit. Max Cooper made his debut at Queens and played well. Sam White too showed how much he has improved in a high quality match against a good opponent from Marlborough. And it was good to see Milo Dundas smiling after two good wins on the first day of competition. Ed Kandel lost in a close game to the eventual winner and should be encouraged for a strong challenge at this title next year.
The main event is the Foster Cup for the sixteen best U18 players in the country. For Eton to have five boys in this event is an impressive achievement but a strong case could be made for us having the four best players and that has never happened for any school in my time in the sport. Ed Rowell was unlucky to draw Braham in the first round but produced a fine display of singles and pushed Braham to the limit in every game. Rowell has worked hard on his backhand side, straightened the ball well and too a good length especially with his return of serve on the forehand side, and although he lost 0-3 to Braham, he came away from this match with tremendous credit in my eyes: an impressive performance. George Nixon lost in the first round to the eventual semi-finalist Maxim Smith (Wellington) and perhaps wasn’t quite able to produce his best play due to a lack of preparation time because of injury. Rory Giddins was seeded three and duly disposed of his two early opponents without really breaking sweat. Rory’s strong serving from both sides resulted in a string of aces and although he could not challenge Morales who was on top form in the semi-final, Rory should be pleased with his week’s work. He will be back next year for another challenge for this prestigious title but will need to maximise all aspects of his preparation to be successful.
So the 2014 Foster Cup final was the match most people had been anticipating: defending champion Toni Morales against his first pair partner Charlie Braham. Morales won the first game playing the kind of high quality rackets that had seen him overcome Giddins the day before. He was returning serve very well indeed, killing the ball to a good length off the front wall and dominating the front of the court in rallies. I think is fair to say that of the sixteen entrants in the event, only Morales at the moment can produce play of this quality. He won the first game 15/5 but the question was simple: could he keep it going? In the second game his movement was starting to look less confident and this meant he was unable to hit the ball exactly where he wanted. Balls that in previous rounds were hitting the front wall were now just catching the side wall and so ending up in the middle of the court. Braham was moving well, serving consistently on both sides and the longer rallies were to his advantage. You could see the belief growing in Braham’s body language as he was able to win some crucial points. The rallies were becoming longer as both players struggled to control the length they were hitting and balls were flying off the back wall. Tension affects footwork, which affects the timing of contact on the ball, which causes errors, which causes tension. Who was going to be able to break this cycle? Braham was able to close out the second and third games 15/11, 15/11 to take a two games to one lead. The fourth game was equally close and there were moments in it where a Morales come back looked likely. After a period of scrappy play, Morales would suddenly produce two or three fine points. But Braham was able to keep his belief, to keep serving well and to keep his standards high throughout. Braham won a close fourth game 15/12 to take the Foster Cup title by three games to one.
There are just one or two final things to add about this final other than to congratulate Charlie Braham on a fabulous victory. The match was played in a great spirit of friendly competition. You will hear plenty of sports coaches who would suggest this phrase is an oxymoron. They will tell you that competition is never friendly as it is a substitute for some kind of life or death battle. Well I am afraid they are wrong. Morales wanted to defend his Foster Cup title with every ounce of will in his body. But this did not stop him again, as last year, calling balls he had hit not up. There are ways of winning and losing that reveal character and gain you credit and both boys come out of this final even higher in many people’s estimations. I hope that we will see a photograph of a similar hug in March as they successfully defend their Doubles title together.
But my final comment is to draw your attention to how hard Charlie Braham has worked and some of the sacrifices he has made to reach the standard needed to beat Morales. Charlie won the National U18 real tennis title in August this year but has hardly played since as he has been so focussed on his Rackets. He was worked on his strength and conditioning with regular sessions through the term and hard training in between. Perhaps the fitness he demonstrated in the final few points of the final game were the result of all this hard work, this effort over an extended period, this self-motivation…? Perhaps the difference between hitting the last ball up at the end of a 90 minute match and just catching the tin was not due to work on the rackets court but work done, alone, in a S&C suite at school at the end of a long tiring day? My question for the younger Etonians reading this is whether they will be prepared to put this much effort into their preparation, to devote this much focus and determination to be the very best they can be. Do you have what it takes to be the next Eton boy to win this title? I posted a tweet on the eve of the final that presumably is an advertising slogan for a sports brand. But it does seem quite apt: “Don’t Wish for it, Work for it”: a good catch phrase for Eton Rackets in 2015.