|June 30, 2019
|University of Cambridge Men’s 2nd
|Oxford University Men’s 2nd
The 2019 M2 Varsity match kicked off on the hottest day of the year so far, with temperatures rising above 30˚c. This was matched by a fiery atmosphere as the Cambridge and Oxford teams battled for victory at Fenners, in what would turn out to be a thrilling struggle.
The match began with a round of three doubles matches. Cambridge’s 1st pair of Nicolas Laing and Pascal Gehlert ensured that first blood went to Cambridge, cruising to a 6-4 6-4 victory over Oxford’s 2nd pair and putting Cambridge 1-0 ahead. However, the other two matches were far tighter, both going to three sets. Oxford’s 3rd pair managed a surprise victory over Cambridge’s 2nd pair of James Darby and Domenic Pilger, who struggled to find their best form (that would come later in the weekend). The final match to finish was between Oxford’s 1st pair and Cambridge’s 3rd pair of Tibo Rushbrooke and Cameron Millar, who pushed their higher seeded opponents hard in an exciting match. After several break points for both teams at 4-5 and 5-5 in the third set, the Oxford team finally prevailed 7-5 in the third. Score after the first round: 2-1 Oxford.
Next was a round of singles, with Cambridge’s 2nd, 4th and 6th seeds playing first. Number 6 Jose Jr Luna, more commonly known as Pepe, raced away with his singles match against Oxford’s number 5, producing probably the shot of the weekend in the process- a diving forehand down the line winner off what seemed to be a winning shot from his opponent. The Oxford player was heard to loudly exclaim ‘No way!’ as Pepe not only got to the ball, but hit it past him. Demonstrating the same never-say-die attitude in the rest of the match, Pepe secured a comfortable straight sets victory to level the overall score.
Playing against the Oxford number 1, Cambridge 2nd seed Dan Saltanov produced a huge result by winning in three sets. The Cambridge player showed great determination and fighting spirit to come back from a set down, and his pinpoint passing shots eventually proved too much for his opponent. Cambridge number 4 James was locked in a thrilling slug-fest that also went to three sets, but he eventually proved the bigger hitter and came out on top in the third.
The remaining singles matches of the round were then played, with the score now 4-2 to Cambridge. Pascal, playing at number 1, faced a difficult match against Oxford’s second seed and lost 7-5 7-6, his opponent’s big serve proving too effective on the grass. 5th seed Domenic bounced back from his doubles loss with a masterful performance, claiming a dominant straight sets win for Cambridge. The closest match was between Cambridge number 3 Dr Laing, and his equally old but significantly fitter opponent, Oxford’s number 4. Despite showing some delicate touch and thumping winners, Nick went down in three sets.
This left the match delicately poised at 5-4 going into the final round of the day, another doubles. Tibo and Cameron were the first Cambridge pair to finish, holding their nerve to win 6-4 7-5 against Oxford’s 2nd pair. Pascal and Nick produced a tactical masterclass against Oxford’s 3rd pair. After lulling their opponents into a false sense of security by getting bagelled in set 1, they came roaring back into the match and took the next two sets. The final match was a blockbuster encounter between James and Dom, and Oxford’s 1st pair. As the shadows lengthened and spectators gathered round, the Cambridge men were playing some huge tennis, with Dom’s backhand returns in particular causing damage. The match was not without drama, including a point where the Oxford players violently contested one of Darby’s calls. Although he was confident in his call, Darby gave the Oxford team the point, an admirably sporting gesture which drew applause from the spectators. Despite their generosity the Cambridge pair finally wrapped up the match 6-4 6-4, and shortly after 9pm- nearly 12 hours after the tennis had begun- the action of the first day concluded, with Cambridge 8-4 up overall.
Sunday morning began with a logistical hiccup, as Cambridge skipper Rushbrooke inexplicably managed to mix up his own schedule. Despite the inconvenience, both teams handled it graciously and play began slightly later than planned. Pepe gave a very focused and professional performance against the Oxford number 6, leading him to another straight-sets victory. After losing the first set, James produced some astonishing hitting and winners of impressive cleanness to come back and take the second. However, the Oxford number 4 once again found a way to raise his game when it mattered, and eventually took the match in three hard-fought sets. The other rubber was a fantastic match between Dan and Oxford’s number 2, a fascinating clash of styles with Dan returning almost everything his big-hitting opponent was throwing at him. Dan recovered from a break down to win the first set, but ultimately his opponent prevailed, winning 6-4 in the third.
With the score now at 9-6 Cambridge were just two rubbers away, but the dark blues had won two in a row and were threatening a comeback. Despite the high stakes Dom remained calm and showed the high level of tennis he’s capable of, beating the Oxford number 5 in straight sets in a clinical display. This crucial victory brought the score to 10-6 meaning Cambridge needed just one more rubber to secure the overall victory. A nerve-jangling hour and a half ensued as both the other matches went deep into third sets. After being dominated by Pascal in the first set, the Oxford number 1 gradually found his feet in a high-quality match of aggressive baseline hitting. The Oxford player managed to keep his composure and edge out a tight third set 6-4.
This left Nick’s match against the Oxford number 3. As this match got tighter and tighter, aggressive shots off Nick’s racquet became rare, and his game could generously be described as ‘scrappy’. This would have been understandable if the pressure of the overall match situation was affecting him- however we discovered later that he had no idea that if he won this match Cambridge would win overall. At any rate, his combination of consistency and the deft touch which- amongst other factors- has earned him the nickname of ‘The Tickler’, prevailed, and from 3-1 down in the deciding set he won 5 games in a row to take it 6-3 and seal victory for Cambridge. It should also be said that the Oxford player was struggling with cramp in the latter stages, and played very courageously in the third set.
With the result now decided both teams were playing only for pride, but the final round of doubles still provided drama. Tibo and Cam’s Oxford opponents found two huge returns at match point down, and eventually won the match tiebreak 11-9 having trailed 9-4. With the pressure off Dom and Pascal couldn’t quite hit their previous heights and lost in another close match, again in three sets. However, the scratch pairing of Pepe and Dan (James had hurt his shoulder; Nick retired Old) extended Cambridge’s margin of victory with a very impressive straight sets win over the Oxford 1st pair, 7-6 6-4. Final result: Cambridge 12-9 Oxford.
With so many close matches it was a fantastic weekend of tennis, and credit must go to both teams for showing the skill and spirit that made it such a great contest. The Grasshoppers have now lifted the trophy for four consecutive years, and they look forward to the challenge of defending it in Oxford next year against an Oxford team that will undoubtably come back stronger.