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The third Richard Black Cup - the Ladies team championships - took place at Eton yesterday, with the Olavians emerging triumphant in a thrilling final over defending champions the EFA by the narrowest of margins at the end of a terrific day's Fives featuring six teams, 40 players, old and new faces and countless close and exciting matches.
Unusually for a tournament of this nature, at the start of play it was very difficult to pick a winner, with all six teams looking well-matched on paper. The bulk of the day was taken up by the round robin matches, with each team playing all of the other teams in a one-game shoot out across three pairs. After the first three rounds it was becoming clear that there was a three-way battle going on for the top two spots and a place in the final. Defending champions the EFA Ladies were once again in contention, as were the runners-up from two years ago St.Olave's with the impressive Oxford University team also in the mix.
All was set for an exciting climax, with St.Olave's having to play their two main rivals in the last two rounds and with the other three teams - Cambridge, Ipswich and a Shrewsbury/Berkhamsted combined team - all more than capable of taking points off the top three contenders. St.Olave's managed to win 2-1 against Oxford in Round 4, which was enough for them to guarantee their place in the final, but the tournament organiser still had to quickly reach for his calculator to work out the possibilities for the final round. Oxford needed to score two more points than the EFA team to overtake them for the final qualifying place and the Oxford girls were quick to put the pressure on by powering to wins at second and third pair against Ipswich. St.Olave's also wrapped up second pair against the EFA in double quick time and things looked to be going the way of the Oxford side. With the EFA first pair of Dom and Lia Redmond just winning their first pair game 12-10 (having been 11-5 ahead!) and Alice Walker and Hannah Cutmore-Scott winning first pair for Oxford against Ipswich by the same margin, it suddenly came down to the EFA third pair of Wendy Carling and Sally Melrose, the result of whose game would decide the finalists. Wendy and Sally were unaware of this - afterwards very pleased that this had been the case - as they held on to win 12-8 and set up a repeat of the final of two years ago between the EFA and St.Olave's.
As the finalists began their best of three matches, Oxford confirmed their well-deserved third place with a narrow win in the 3rd/4th play off against the Shrewsbury/Berkhamsted team, who were well led by Fiona Barnes all day and who showed that there are plenty of talented Fives players coming through from those two schools. Oxford captain Alice Walker was delighted with her team's performance, especially in the absence of last year's captain Constance Mantle, and the Oxford girls will go into next week's Universities Championships having gained a lot of confidence.
In the 5th/6th play-off, Ipswich captain Annabel Griffiths put aside any potential divided loyalties as she led her team to a 3-0 over Cambridge. The Ipswich team featured Sarah Frost and Stephanie Smith - winners at Repton the previous week - who confirmed the good impression they had made at the Midland Tournament with some strong performances during the day. Sarah and Eleanor Ward have also to be congratulated for driving all the way down from Durham and back to play - that shows real commitment! Ipswich's Caroline Hunt also made a good impression on the watching Fives cognoscenti in her first national tournament. The Cambridge girls fought hard all day, with a 2-1 win over Ipswich in the group stages their highlight and several new players gaining valuable experience. The 5th/6th match also gave a relieved Laura Pattison the chance to gain some quick revenge for her defeat to sister Frances earlier in the day.
As the other matches finished, the focus began to move to the final. Quickest out of the blocks were Charlotta Cooley and Marianne Rees at first pair for the Olavians as they brushed aside the Redmond sisters 12-2 in the first game at first pair. At second pair, Mandie Barnes and Lucy Pugh of the EFA had been improving steadily all day and saved their best Fives for the final. Olavian captain Anita Ganguly and partner Anna Shelley had no answer to Mandie's cut returning and Lucy's power and placement from the back court and the EFA pair stormed through to win 12-9, 12-5. The EFA side were soon scenting glory as sisters Wendy Carling and Sally Melrose continued where they had left off in the group stage match between the teams to win the first game at third pair 12-7 against Emma Wells and Sharon Greaves and the Redmond sisters dramatically reversed the Olavian tide at first pair to dominate the second game 12-3 and level their rubber at 1-1.
The third game of the first pair match was much closer than the first two. With Dom playing her normal unhurried and steady game and with Lia impressing in one of her fist matches back after maternity leave, the EFA pair edged 8-6 ahead. Suddenly, however, Charlotta Cooley found the cut returning touch that had been eluding her up until that point, and in one decisive hand the Olavian pair went from 6-8 down to 11-6 up. The final point followed soon after and the match was tied overall at 1-1.
For the neutrals watching - including Richard Black himself as well as Dale and Krystyna Vargas - this set up the perfect conclusion. Emma Wells and Sharon Greaves for the Olavians had won the second game of their rubber 12-8 and with the other pairs finished, everything came down to the final game of the third pair match. Here in a nutshell was the difference between an individual pairs event and a team competition. None of the four relatively inexperienced players on court will ever have played a game of Fives with so much riding on it before and after some initial panic when they realised the situation all four players responded magnificently, giving their absolute all, with all four of them undoubtedly producing the best Fives of their lives as the scores edged forward, never more than a point separating the pairs. With the score at 10-10 and the tension mounting it was finally the Olavian pair who found that extra bit of inspiration, with Emma Wells retrieving heroically from the back of the court as Sharon Greaves took control of the last few rallies with incisive cutting and returning and attacking volleys with both right and left hands. They finally took the game 13-11 to clinch a first Richard Black Cup for the Olavian team.
My thanks go to all the team captains and players for playing such good Fives and providing such great entertainment; to Mike Hughes and Eton for allowing us the use of the courts and facilities; to Dale and Krystyna Vargas for presenting the prizes; and to Richard Black for providing the prizes and the magnificent silver trophy, which is surely the most impressive piece of silverware on the Fives circuit.
1. EFA 12 points
2. St.Olave's 12 points
3. Oxford 11 points
4. Shrews/Berk 5 points
5. Ipswich 3 points
6. Cambridge 2 points
Ipswich beat Cambridge 3-0
Oxford beat Shrews/Berk 2-1
St.Olave's beat EFA 2-1
C.Cooley & M.Rees beat D.Redmond & L.Redmond 2-1 (12-2, 3-12, 12-8)
A.Ganguly & A.Shelley lost to M.Barnes & L.Pugh 0-2 (9-12, 5-12)
E.Wells & S.Greaves beat W.Carling & S.Melrose 2-1 (7-12, 12-8, 13-11)