|July 1, 2009|
|University of Cambridge Women’s 1st||12||Win|
|Oxford University Women’s 1st||9||Loss|
The Women’s Varsity Squad was (*denotes Blue):
Beth Ashbridge (Clare)* [Captain]
Victoria Watson (Jesus)* [Secretary]
Alice Barnes (Lucy Cavendish)*
Laura Morrill (Murray Edwards)*
Erica Ross (Caius)*
Corina Balaban (Homerton)*
Claire Bush (St John’s)
Bronwen Derry (Pembroke)
Tennis Girls Triumph in Thrilling Varsity
By Victoria Watson
All signposts for grasscourt tennis in South London at the start of the summer point towards SW19. Yet, this year, at the same time as the home of tennis entertained the world’s finest players upon its immaculately manicured lawns, another tennis competition of comparable tradition, prestige and excitement enlivened the grasscourts of the nearby National Tennis Centre in Roehampton.
The annual Women’s Varsity Match, which for the first time took place alongside the Men’s Varsity Match, sparked support akin to Murray mania, provoked passion equivalent to a Hewitt fist-pump, aroused aggression to match a Williams sister serve and concluded with a climax as riveting as the celebrated 2008 Wimbledon men’s final between Federer and Nadal. Following last year’s 11-10 thriller which saw Oxford triumph in the final round, the Light Blues avenged their painful defeat to prevail 12-9 in an epic encounter.
The story of success begins at 7.30am on Monday mornings. As part of a series of measures targeted at turning the tables in 2009, a team fitness session was prescribed by CULTC Chairman Dr Barnes. Weights were lifted, hurdles were jumped and treadmills were pounded as, to the cries of ‘Come on’ from Captain Beth Ashbridge (Clare), the Blues transformed into finely tuned athletes, programmed to peak for Varsity. Peak they did as, kitted out in tight-fitting light blue gear to exhibit enlarged muscles, the team excelled in extremely hot and humid conditions.
Uniquely spread out over three days, the Varsity match commenced with six singles matches. Following an inspired performance from Cambridge Number 2, fresher Laura Morrill (Murray Edwards), to defeat the Oxford Number 1 in a tight three-setter, the National Tennis Centre was blighted by a rainstorm sufficiently torrential to saturate the scorched grass. Retaining their composure during the break and adjusting to the new surface indoors, Cambridge Number 1 Alice Barnes (Lucy Cavendish) and Number 3 Victoria Watson (Jesus) did the business against the Oxford Number 2 and 4 respectively to level the scores at three all at the end of Day One. Predictably neither side faltered in the opening round as Oxford confirmed the Blues’ expectations in proving stubborn to surrender their trophy.
The teams were greeted by conditions more typical of the US and Australian Opens than the Wimbledon fortnight as they arrived for the crucial Day Two of the Varsity Match. With nine matches to play, one side was set to go into Day Three ahead and this was the aim of the Blues from the outset as they prepared for the heat and humidity by dousing themselves in suncream and downing copious amounts of water. Alice Barnes confirmed her star credentials once again with a convincing victory over the Oxford Number 1, as Victoria Watson also defeated her opposite number, recovering from a 4-2 deficit in the second set to win 6-4.
The first of three rounds of doubles began after the teams consumed yet another healthy meal produced for the best of British tennis talent based at the £40 million Lawn Tennis Association facility. Cambridge First pair Barnes and Watson won comfortably over the Oxford Third pair as Cambridge Second pair Ashbridge and Morrill launched an impressive challenge against the Oxford First pair, eventually succumbing in three sets. They continued their good form to defeat the Oxford Third pair as Barnes and Watson disposed of the Second pair to cap their successful day. Strength at the bottom of the Oxford order prevented the Cambridge Third pair of debutant Blues, Corina Balaban (Homerton) and Erica Ross (Caius), from adding to the tally and so Cambridge had to satisfy themselves with an 8-7 lead going into the Day Three; a scoreline which nevertheless satisfied the criteria for success identified prior to the start of play.
With three singles and three doubles matches to play on Day Three, Cambridge required three wins for victory and took confidence from the fact that they were in the favourable position. Morrill produced some top tennis to prevail in pressurised conditions over the big-serving Oxford Number Two as Cambridge Number Six, fresher Corina Balaban, won a crucial match against her opposite number to make the task facing the Blues in the final round considerably easier. Rising to the occasion, Balaban retained her composure as her opponent, playing in her final Varsity match, attempted to frustrate the Romanian with clay court like consistency. As in 2008, it was all down to the final round yet, on this occasion, the Light Blues required just one win for victory, rather than two.
The team talk prior to the crunch round concentrated upon the need for each pair to win their own match, rather than relying upon the other pairs. Following a communal warm-up, rousing words from the Captain and plenty of advice from supporters eager for success, the team took to the courts feeling the pressure but also sensing the opportunity for a monumental result. The team spirit and outside support had already played an important role over the three days as, lead by squad members Claire Bush (St John’s) and Bronwen Derry (Pembroke), the light blue fan club was in vocal mood throughout the afternoon.
Responsibility for sealing the one win perhaps rested ultimately with the Cambridge first pair as they had already defeated their Oxford equivalent on two previous occasions, albeit in extremely close matches. The match proceeded true to form with each player holding serve and nerve in the early stages until a change of tactic called by Barnes yielded the elusive break to give Cambridge a 5-3 lead. Despite the light blue position of preponderance, the Oxford duo showed character to bounce back with some blistering groundstrokes and, it has to be said, a stroke of luck to level the scores at 6-6. Unfazed by relinquishing their lead, Barnes and Watson played an excellent tie-break and vowed to keep the pressure on at the start of the second set. Relief at quelling the Oxford comeback, however, led to laxity as they went down 3-0, at the same time as the Cambridge third pair lost their match and the second pair lost the first set of theirs. At this point, the nightmare scenario of three losses in the final round entered into the heads of the light blues. This could not happen. This would not happen. Don’t let it happen.
Contemplating the possibility of incomprehensibly unbearable desolation, the light blues decided to remain calm. Slowly the games came back, one by one, until match point was reached at 5-4. A match of such tension was never going to end routinely, however, and yet again the set was poised at 6-6 after a nerveless service game from Watson prevented Oxford from pushing the match into a third set. It was in the tie-break that Cambridge truly came into their own with a series of winners exciting the large crowd gathered on the grassy banks behind the court. Appropriately a winner sealed the match as, punching the air, the pair were joined spontaneously by their team-mates for an impromptu embrace to celebrate an epic victory in the 2009 Varsity match.
Further revelry was postponed temporarily as the Cambridge second pair continued their match and, encouraged by the result on the neighbouring court, triumphed in a deciding championship tiebreak to consolidate the victory and prove that the anxiety of earlier was clearly unnecessary. For so-called ‘Captain Fantashbridge’, who had lost both of her previous Varsity matches, the win meant everything as she and the team were presented with the Van Allen trophy and, even better, a Jeroboam of Pol Roger champagne. With all team members still available for selection next year, we look forward to defending the title in 2010.