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.
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
Today was a busy one with four rackets matches involving Eton pairs on at Queens Club in London.
Junior Colts Final
Eton (Tom Loup mi and Ben Brooks) played St Pauls (seeded one) in the first final this morning. The St Pauls pair are very strong and PAB and I both knew that we would have to play at our very best to be able to compete. As it turned out, St Pauls started the match serving very powerfully and to a good length. We couldn’t return enough serves to get into any kind of rhythm and so the early exchanges all went in their favour. Any nerves they might have had as favourites were quickly dissipated as they won the first game to love. The remaining two games were much more closely contested but the reality of this match was that we were outplayed throughout by a better pair. St Pauls won the final by three games to love, 15/0, 15/9, 15/7. Tom Loup and Ben Brooks have had a good week overall and have shown that they can play well as a pair. Both have improved through the week and the boys were disappointed that the quality of opposition was too strong for them on this occasion. We know now exactly how much we need to improve to be able to take these boys on and I look forward to seeing how these two and our other E block players rise to the challenge in D block.
Eton’s Colts pair was also an all-RDOC affair. Rory Giddins and George Nixon have been favourites for this competition all season and were seeded one. They reached the final easily enough and had not really been extended or put under pressure before today. Their opponents in the final this morning were the old enemy Harrow whose pair comprised a talented but inexperienced left hander and a hard-hitting and more experienced player on the right side of the court. Eton started well and were made to work really hard in the first game. Harrow actually took an early lead and had several serves with 12 points already accumulated. The Harrow boys were fired up and we had to keep our cool and focus to win this game. As the match went on, the boys became more comfortable and Harrow’s mistakes made it hard for them to stay in the rallies. Nixon served well at times and Giddins played his usual high quality consistent game. More and more unforced errors were creeping into our opponents’ play and we were able to exert some control from in the service box when we served to a good length. The Eton pair won the match and the Colts Doubles trophy by four games to love 15/12, 15/8, 15/4, 15/6. Well done to Rory and George for winning Eton’s first trophy of the week!
Second pairs semifinal Eton (George Loup and Ed Rowell) won well to reach tomorrow’s final. They beat a good Harrow 3rd pair by four games to love 15/10, 15/3, 15/10, 17/16.
First pairs semifinal Eton (Toni Morales and Charlie Braham) played much better today to win their match this evening. Braham served a much better length and was taking the ball earlier in the rallies, Morales hit some great winners at times and it was clear we were trying to play more at the front of the court. This is the only way to win games on the Queens court and although I thought the Wellington pair played well at times, once we started keeping the ball off the back wall in the rallies, they were always going to find it tricky to match our play. Wellington won the first game having been well down in it, but from then on, the remaining games all went to Eton. I was pleased with the improved performance today and I hope we can make another step up in quality for the final tomorrow. Eton II beat Wellington II 14/17, 15/5, 15/8, 5/8, 15/6
11am Second Pairs Final: Loup ma and Rowell play Harrow II
1.15pm First Pairs Final:
Morales and Braham play Harrow (Robbie White and Henry Goodfellow)
It was good to see a collection of beaks and boys at Queens today to support the team. Thank you to everyone who made the effort to come into London to see the boys play. Do please come along tomorrow for the two remaining finals if you are free. Both are Eton-Harrow clashes of course and the galleries tend to be packed on these occasions so get there early to make sure you have a good view.
Today was the day we all had a chance to say celebrate the life of Sir Mervyn Dunnington-Jefferson at his wonderfully moving memorial service at St Luke’s Chelsea. The church was packed (600 approx) which was in no way a surprise nor was the fact that OER&TC, IZ and Ramblers ties were all much in evidence. I only knew Merv for the last 15 years or so and so it was great to hear stories in the address about his life as a young man. The music from the choir was truly exceptional I thought with two beautifully sung solos in two of the anthems. Merv’s son read a poem called “The Eighth at Brancaster” most apt of course as this is where Merv played his golf.
Merv always struck me as a man who could squeeze every last drop of enjoyment and fun from any experience. He was a true supporter of Eton Rackets, always keen to hear how the boys were doing and generous with helping us financially with tours and prizes for boys. For many years, and in spite of all my advice, he would place a bet on the Eton runner in the Foster Cup at Queens. I don’t think he ever won. The one year in which we won, when Merv could have got some of his money back off David Makey, was the year of Will Hopton’s success and Merv inexplicably decided not to make his usual mistake and instead backed the top seed and favourite, who we beat in the final.
I loved talking to Merv about horses. I used to bump into him frequently at York for the Ebor meeting in August and Merv would regale me with his tales of woe about the 2 year olds he had in training with Paul Cole. Each one was a disaster, never fulfilling potential or breeding promise, but Merv’s grumblings about his horses were always delivered with a twinkle in his eye. Merv loved the competition, he loved the stories and characters in racing and clearly loved York. I will miss him massively in the summer when the flat season starts once again.
For the past 10 years or so, Merv used to come to Eton just before Christmas with his great friend Dudley MacDonald to play rackets. Peter Brake and I would play what came to be known as the “Christmas Doubles” on what was always a cold Monday morning with Merv and Dudley. The knock ups and match usually lasted 45 minutes or so in total with many expletives and profanities uttered by Merv through the game. We would then adjourn to Gilbey’s on the High Street for a lunch that normally took three or more hours. Having worked our way through some of the wine list, always chatting about rackets, cricket or the horses, in conversations accompanied by raucous laughter, I would stagger home up the road and usually crash out on the sofa. Merv would drive back into London for a drinks party in the evening.
It was clear from the service today that Merv was clearly a beloved friend to many and I am sure that all 600 of the congregation could tell similar stories of happy times in his company. The last few months of his life were sadly blighted by illness but prior to that Merv had lived his life to the full. His service reminded me today that our time is limited, that family is the most important thing and that every day gives us the chance to laugh, to enjoy time with our friends and to have fun. Merv I never got a chance to say any of this to you in person and you would certainly not have found this on Twitter. But I valued the kindness and friendship you showed me more than you could know and I miss you. RIP.