The Men’s Varsity Squad was (*denotes Blue):
Nick Jenkins* (St John’s) [Captain]
Cameron Johnston* (Christ’s) [Secretary]
Kirill Zavodov* (Magdalene)
Bruno Monteferri* (Huges Hall)
Kenny Taubenslag* (Emmanuel)
Sven Sylvester* (Trinity)
Greg Caterer* (St John’s)
Rob Legg (Downing)
By Nick Jenkins
There was a certain pressure on Cambridge to extend our five match winning run in the 2011 Barclays Men’s Tennis Varsity Match. However, missing some key members of the team from previous years and struggling in BUCS was not a great omen. The tense match that ensued was only settled in the final round of doubles and produced some high octane matches and near unprecedented levels of support.
The team got off to a great start on Monday afternoon in intense heat and humidity at the LTA’s National Tennis Centre, taking a 4-2 lead in the first day of singles. Our top players had a tough time against a strong Oxford #1 and #2.
At #1, Cameron Johnston (Christ’s) was looking to reignite his performances earlier in the year, where his big serving, crunching forehands and steady slice backhand proved too good for some top ranked opponents. However, a recent shoulder injury had seen his form dip slightly and, despite playing some beautiful tennis, he wasn’t quite dominant enough to beat the Oxford captain and #2, a former Scottish Junior Champion.
Kirill Zavodov (Magdalene), at #2, was looking to win his sixth Varsity Match and almost pulled off a shock result against the Oxford #1. Close line calls and net cords saw the first set tie break fall the way of the Dark Blue. This did not deter our Russian comrade, after his painkillers had worn down during the second set; Kirill was able to feel his arm and hit his trademark punishing backhands, enabling him to take the second set 6-3. In the third set, he couldn’t maintain his momentum and the match slipped away.
We knew the middle order matches had the potential to swing the tie and, thankfully, our best performances of the weekend came from exactly these two guys, Bruno Monteferri (Hughes Hall) at #3 and Kenny Taubenslag (Emmanuel) at #4.
Bruno had spent the morning draped in wet towels and t-shirts on the hottest day of the year and didn’t change before walking onto court, looking like a tribal warrior, of sorts. However, the German Oxford #4 did not seem intimidated in the slightest, and came out of the blocks with guns blazing, blasting shots all over the court. Thankfully, he came up against a deflector shield, Bruno took the first 9 points and made only two unforced errors in the whole match. The look of sheer disbelief on his opponent’s face was a joy to behold as he found the ball continuously returning to his baseline after hitting some huge shots. Bruno romped home 6-0, 6-2.
Kenny did everything that was needed in an ‘All-American’ clash against the Oxford #3. Kenny played the match on his terms, manoeuvring his opponent around the court, serving well on big points and digging in when necessary to take the match in straight sets.
There were some characteristically nervy games in the lower singles order. Our guys showed good resolve and character to come through in some testing matches. Sven Sylvester (Trinity) and Greg Caterer (St. John’s), both making their Varsity debuts at #5 and #6 respectively, saw their first sets culminate in tie breaks. Despite not playing the most elegant tennis under Varsity pressure, they both ground out these breakers. With renewed confidence and reduced pressure, both of them took control and emerged comfortable victors.
4-2 up at the end of day one, we looked to repeat the solid performance on the second day. The Light Blues didn’t disappoint as the intensity of the matches moved up through the gears.
Cam again struggled at the top of the order against the canny Oxford #1, who was playing even better than the day before. Bruno was a model of consistency again against the Oxford #3, notching up another love set! Sven then took a leaf out of the Peruvian’s book to mop up the first set 6-0 against the Oxford #5 before finding himself in a dog fight in the second set as the match moved into another tie break. Sven held his nerve, despite some dubious calls, producing some quality serving to earn himself a match point. An edgy rally ensued before Sven charged the net off a forehand approach. The ball was returned to his toes for Sven to bend his knees and play the most delicately nervous drop shot anyone has ever. The ball just cleared the net, dropping dead just over the other side; impossible to return. The crowd were stunned in disbelief for a moment before erupting with jubilation.
Just as the next round of matches was starting, a violent thunderstorm engulfed the NTC. The referee, more concerned about lightning striking the players than the condition of the courts, moved the matches off the grass and on to the one available indoor hard court.
Kirill took the stage first, but was put to the sword by the Oxford #2. However, KZ wouldn’t be put to bed easily, hurting the Oxford player with some powerful serving and returning, a pity his opponent could do exactly the same.
It was then Kenny’s turn against the hard hitting Oxford #3 whom Bruno had played the day before. The team knew this match would be close and the result could be critical for the overall tie and supporters gathered on viewing balcony to spur on Kendog. Some big serving, long rallying and multiple deuce games ensued, as the match stayed on serve. Seemingly buoyed on by the crowd, Kenny made a crucial break at the end of the first set and continued to serve out in style. The second set produced more of the same. Kenny continued to play smart and patient tennis, but again the set looked like it could swing either way. As noise levels escalated, Kenny broke again, just at the right time and continued to take the rubber calmly 6-4, 6-4.
After this barn burner, it was hard to believe that the intensity could increase – but it did. It was finally Greg’s turn on court, but he found it hard to find his usual rhythm against the Oxford #6, who seemed to prefer the indoor hard to the grass outside. Everyone was slightly concerned, as this was a match we had banked on winning. Greg lost a close first set before going a break down in the second, struggling to find his form.
The team was desperately trying to turn Greg’s fortunes around. However, it appeared to be a mixture of Spanish musings from Bruno and appearance of ex- captain Rob Blythe, who had skipped work early to catch some of the action, which helped to turn the tide. Greg regrouped and regained his composure to break back and take the second set.
The immediate sense of relief was quickly dispelled as Greg went another break down in the third. His dad was forced to watch from a distance, Sven was pacing up and down the balcony, while other parents had to stop watching because of the tension. The rest of the team were trying their upmost with exuberant clapping, fist pumping and screaming to urge Greg on.
The match was hanging in the balance when a sublime moment occurred. Greg reached an approach shot to hoist a lob over his opponent’s head and followed it into the net. The Oxford player scampered back to the deep ball and managed to hit a shot through his legs up the line. Greg dived like Boris Becker to his right, ignoring all personal injury on the hard court, to direct a forehand volley cross court for a winner. The crowd erupted with euphoria, Greg jumped up from the floor, red in the face, fist pumping, shouting ‘Come on Cambridge!!!’ This game was pivotal, as Greg once again came back to steal the set and the match – epic. The final score, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 does not reflect how close the match was.
So, day two ended with the Light Blues 8-4 up, the team felt relieved with this hard fought lead. The bad weather on the second day meant that all nine doubles matches would be played on the third and final day. Back on the grass Sven & Nick Jenkins (St. John’s) started their campaign with a marathon match against the Oxford second pair. Playing simple doubles, as prescribed by our coach Nick Brown, they took the first set handsomely and were up a break in the second looking cool as their opponents began to look a little despondent. However, they would rue their chances to take a second break. Sven slammed a forehand return at the Oxford net player only to see the ball spin off the frame of his racquet and across the face of the net. Nick scampered after the ball, but could only watch in disbelief as the ball span backwards into the net. Seemingly spurred on, Oxford then broke back and took the second set on a tie break.
Unconcerned, we found ourselves ahead again in the third set, with Sven serving for the match at 5-3. Our tight call on the baseline on the first point seemed to annoy certain factions in the Oxford crowd. It was then quite ironic to find Sven (the Australian) distracted by sledging from an Oxford supporter. A couple of double faults aided Oxford to break back and send the match on.
Varsity tradition is not to play a tie break at 6-6 in the third set, but to play it out as an advantage set. Cambridge continued to hold serve comfortably and some cross court backhand winners straight off the return set up several match points. However, a mixture of good serving, volleying and a near unbelievable run of luck for Oxford’s American, saw six match points go begging. Both players and supporters were eager for an Isner-Mahut classic, but with the match now poised at 8-8, the referee stepped in to call a tie break due to the time pressure created by the rain the day before. Based on the prior events it seemed we were fated to lose this tie-break – we lost unfortunately 6-3, 6-7, 8-9.
Also in the first round of doubles, Cam & Bruno swept past the Oxford third pair, while KZ & Kenny were trumped by the Oxford first pair. Cambridge now 9-6 ahead, required two wins from six rubbers. The second round of doubles was a copy of the first. Nick & Sven breezed past the third pair. Bruno & Cam fought hard, but to no avail, against the first pair. Kenny & KZ weren’t totally on the ball against a second pair who looked reinvigorated from their previous victory. The tie was now poised at 10-8, meaning we needed a single rubber in the final round of doubles to seal victory.
Despite all targeting victory in our own matches, we knew that KZ & Kenny should provide the killer blow. Unfortunately, they did not find it going all their way against the Oxford third pair, who had nothing to lose. Meanwhile, Cam & Bruno were battling against an Oxford second pair brimming with confidence. Nick & Sven had lost the first set comfortably against the classy Oxford first. At this point, Sven, ashamed of letting his country’s name down, decided to show Oxford some proper sledging and took umbrage at an Oxford’s line call. Taking our time at the change of ends and mixing up the play affected on our opponents and, remarkably, we started dictating in the second set.
Spectators didn’t know which match to watch, as each looked like it could have swung either way. Eventually, Kenny & Kirill came through as expected, bullying their way to victory and clinching the contest. However, cheering was more out of relief than congratulations and celebrations were subdued as the other two matches were still unfolding.
Upon hearing of their team loss, and now a set down, the Oxford second pair conceded against Cam & Bruno, who were dominating proceedings by this point and were annoyed at being denied the chance to finish them off. This left Sven & Nick last on court again. Despite missing an overhead to take the second set 6-2, there were no missed chances in the next game, and against a pair who ‘never lose a set’ the Light Blues took the Dark Blues to a third, hoping to spoil their perfect record.
As the match had now been decided, a championship tie break was played for the third set. Nick was unable to keep a straight face at how dramatically the tides had turned. Sven knowing the match had been sealed decided his job was done for the day, so he refused to chase down smashes and started to take blind swings at returns. With Nick now playing his best tennis of the day the pair managed to recover from 2-7 down to 7-8 down. However, it proved to be a little too late and was a real pity not to round off the whole fixture with such a win.
So, with great relief and pride, we lifted the Doherty Cup and jeroboam of Pol Roger for the sixth consecutive year. Our strength in depth, which had made the team selection so difficult, clinched the match against an Oxford side who were undoubtedly stronger at the top. The depth was reflected in a resounding 18-3 Varsity victory by the Grasshoppers at Fenners two weeks previously.
Another year of excellent spirit in the squad was graciously acknowledged by the Oxford President, Tony Billington, uncle of Tim Henman and organiser of the Varsity Match. The support from the sidelines, including reserve Rob Legg (Downing), a legion of recent Old Blues, Grasshoppers and assorted parents, provided great encouragement and helped create an event in which the whole team felt privileged to be part. A tear or two shed after the dinner was testament to that.