Louis Shaw, 2021 Grasshoppers Varsity

Fresher, Louis Shaw played at #1 for singles and in pair #1 for doubles at the 2021 Grasshoppers Varsity Match. We asked Louis to write match reports, and he delivered.

Match 1 – Cambridge 1 vs Oxford 2 (6-4, 7-5)  

After Oxford kindly gave us some clay courts to warm up on, this first match mostly involved getting used to the low nets and a knobbly meadow of a grass court. The courts were quick, and Brendan played flat on both sides and returned great so the Arthur Ashe vs Jimmy Connors strategy {low slices, slow + wide serves, the occasional junk ball} was necessary. Some good returning and effective counter-punching in the second set allowed Cambridge to take the net and get the vital break of serve.  

Match 2 – Cambridge 1&2 vs Oxford 3&4  

Facing a sullen prefect and Oxford’s artful captain in some quintessential British drizzle we felt the force of home advantage in the first set. The lefty slice serve was extremely awkward, though fortunately the prefect couldn’t hit a flat serve over the artificially low net for love nor head-boy status. After plenty of shanks from Cambridge, we realised that with long grass and slice serves we needed to make sure we got below the ball to drive through and inject some pace. This was an awkward pair who dealt well with pace, kept the ball low, and both volleyed well. Ultimately some big serving from Dan and some better returning from myself turned the tables leading to a comfortable next two sets.  

Match 3 – Cambridge 1&2 vs Oxford 5&6  

Having seen them play singles we knew this would be a tough match. Orange racket and the hacking Aussie both hit extremely flat keeping the ball very low on the grass. Orange racket is the best volleyer we faced all year, with composure and dexterity at the net making an otherwise tepid serve from the Aussie almost unbreakable. It was a lesson in patience due to the Aussie looking like someone you should be able to snap, but actually a deceptively good doubles player. Having lost the first set after yet more shanks and some poor volleying, we switched on and started attacking the orange serve and targeting the Aussie’s backhand. This was the best match Dan played in my opinion, serving great and being very positive despite some challenging moments. Special mention to a tweener lob winner that I think is shot of the week. The second set tie-break was a nail biter with Cambridge saving match points to come out 10-8. This was despite perhaps the worst leave I’ve ever seen from Dan. Having missed a sitter of a shoulder high volley at set-point {5-6} the forehand return at 8-9 is a shot I will remember as both redemption and the loudest crowd roar I’ve known – thank you to the team for that memory. It was around 8pm at this point, but the Cambridge support was robust to the hunger pangs – Najar’s spicy chicken probably to blame. After patting ourselves on the back for playing aggressive and attacking the serve, we promptly went 2-5 down after some shambolic volleying from Dan (sorry mate). Something, something, rage against the dying light and a glorious comeback. Dan served great, and some good use of the cross led to a quick hold allowing us to focus on the break needed at 5-3. Dan hit some stunning returns picking out the low backhand volley of the Aussie, whilst I teed off cross returns keeping Orange back long enough for us to close the net and take the break. At this point we thought it was time to clap my rotator cuff so I started hitting serves as hard as I could – some of them went in leading to a quick hold and some pressure on the oxford serve. At 5-6 Dan hit his spots with the serve and pulled off the best pickup I’ve seen at 15-30 – classy stuff. There being no match tie-breaks in the third we rolled in and took the break immediately despite an absurd miss on top of the net (after an admittedly brilliant lob retrieval) from Dan. Any tight varsity match wouldn’t be complete without Oxford attempting to hook. Sure enough at 40-15, 7-6, a flush wide serve was called out in a bogun moment from the Aussie. At 40-30 Dan decided he wanted to win the match twice, taking a back-fence bound ball out of the air with a surprisingly athletic leap for his 7th hour on court. It was a great match of tennis with an awkward pair that we are proud to have come through. Special thanks to the Cambridge support, and to Dan for keeping both of our heads up during a match that easily could’ve lost.  

Match 4 – Cambridge 1 vs Oxford 1  

Having watched Gaku (Oxford 1) play Dan I quickly realised he was superior to me in everything except height and university. I therefore intended to keep the points short. Unfortunately Oxford, having failed to account for the amply forecast rain on the Sunday, left us to walk a few miles to Magdelen recreational ground to play on some kind of rubber mesh that played like clay. Whilst great for the forehands of Krishna and Reece, this was a real nightmare for me as serves and slices held up and favoured longer rallies. The nets were also too high, but I believe this was in my favour initially as Gaku missed almost every first serve in the net tape allowing me to quickly run to a 4-0 lead. I was very pleased with this set of tennis – I moved well, used variety to prevent Gaku getting any rhythm, and used the kick serve to make him play above his head. Having taken a 4-2 lead in the second, two things changed. Firstly, Gaku gave up on any attempts to hit a winner and transported us both back 10 years to U12 hackathons – this is a compliment insofar as he felt the need to resort to tennis drivel, but unfortunately is the best way to play me and feels like pulling fingernails on court. Secondly, noticing the switch and remembering the many, many painful losses to grinders I started backing off my shots and returns. For future varsity players, I’d recommend keeping low with the legs to keep power, exaggerating/extending one’s focus on your contact point to maintain your balance, and remain patient – if you must hit three bounce smashes from the baseline in a rally then so be it. I failed on all three of these, and quickly crumbled to a 4-6 loss. Into a match tie-break. I wasn’t serving very well due to my flat serve being essentially nullified by the high nets {white men can’t jump}, and much slower due to the rubber court which meant points were longer than I’d liked in the breaker. I earned two match points at 9-7 after trying to play bold, using the short slice to bring a low wing-span Gaku to the net, and driving my returns heavy and deep to his backhand corner. A moment of virtue signalling to compensate for my stupidity: at 9-8 up I left a ball that landed on the line, a ball they apparently consider out in Oxford. I should’ve been at the net to put it away. Two unforced errors led to an 11-9 loss. I’m extremely sorry to the team for not closing this match out and I’ll regret this match for many years to come. I hope this loss helps someone else win the match-breaker in the following years. What I wish I did: keep staying positive on both sides, hit 20/30 smashes at the end of every session (our equivalent of penalties, free-throws or three-foot putts), work on consistently hitting angles to create space off both wings, and use drop-shots more often.  

Match 5 – Cambridge 1&2 Oxford 1&2  

Believe it or not we actually played quite well this match. I’ve always been told that every 20 matches in tennis you have 16 normal days, 2 great ones, and 2 shit ones. The Oxford pair played out of their mind for two sets consistently hitting huge returns inches from the net, painting the lines with their serves, and dropping every lob onto the baseline. We were simply outplayed, but having played them at singles I’m aware this was a black (or at least very dark grey) swan. I would recommend sticking the faster server into the wind on those courts in the future, and taking a defensive position when returning into the wind against a pair playing that well. Special mention to Luke for tagging me in the temple at 6-1, 5-1 up – serves me right for all the crap I gave Dan for leaving back-fence balls!  

Looking back at the weekend, it is absolutely a highlight of my brief stint at the university. It was a pleasure to be a member of a great team that were competitive yet not afraid to laugh at themselves, there to support each other when they need it, and very welcoming to late-joiners. I hope we will be able to share a court and a dinner table again soon. Pravin said it best, but thank you for topping off a bizarre year with so much laughter. “Cheers muscles”.