Thursday 20 March 2008

Canary Wharf Classic 2008

The EastWinttergarden venueSo back to Docklands for - incredibly - the fifth year of this event.

The tournament had already made headlines by the time I attended on semi-finals evening, with Alister Walker and Joey Barrington scoring some of the biggest wins of their careers in the first round.

Though Barrington had now gone (losing to Beachill in four after upsetting the Finn Olli Tuominen), Walker looked like he couldn't quite believe his luck ...

Long-distance Walker

Luck, by all accounts, hadn't played a part in his progress, with a five-game thriller against Greg Gaultier in the first round seeing the 25 year-old score the biggest win of his career.

The official programmeThe Englishman was obviously taking a fancy to French opposition, and went on to defeat Renan Lavigne in the second round, again playing well above his seeding.

Walker came on to court for his semi-final looking like he'd just walked off the set of Pirates of the Caribbean in a bandana, banana-yellow shirt and shoes to match. He didn't appear in a particularly swashbuckling mood, however, betraying a nervousness from the start - as if he shouldn't really have sneaked through to this stage and was in danger of getting found out.

A few mistakes from Walker and an apparent hesitation about when during the rallies to attack quickly saw Pilley take advantage. The Australian was a mask on concentration thoughout, and quickly saw that getting the job done could be achieved by playing to his own strengths and waiting for his opponent to take risks. He took the first game 11-1 with a beautifully weighed drop from back-court.

I hadn't seen the 6'+ Pilley prior to this match, and his deft racket skills revealed a surprising Peter Crouch-esque subtletly on the ball.

His size was also used to good effect in the second, concealing a number of forehand attacking boasts from mid-court that frequently had Walker wrong-footed. At 1-4 down, the Englishman decided that patience was needed to avoid a terrible ending to a promising week, and started to find a more consistent length. He brought the score back to 4-7, only for Pilley to slam the door shut with a kill in the front forehand corner.

Things were now evening up, with both players dropping far too high above the tin. At 10-10 Walker's mistakes crept back in at the wrong moment and he was left with nothing to show for his mini-resurgence, going down 11-10.

The third started with Walker looking more confident, leading a game for the only time in the match at 2-1 when he finally bossed a point and really moved Pilley where he didn't want to go.

The back wall crown at Canary WharfThe crowd was getting behind their man, but as the Australian ploughed his furrow, Walker started to get frustrated at his inability to disrupt his opponent's methodical game. An angry volley kill off Pilley's serve that tinned to make it 3-6 sealed his fate, and Pilley won the match comfortably, taking the final game 11-5.

It was clear that the efforts of the past couple of days had taken their toll on Walker, with the effect being mental as much as physical. His next big tournament will show whether he has the strength of mind to build on his week in London.

Pilley looks a great prospect, and I suspect he will not stay at 20 in the rankings for much longer.

Beachill back

In the other semi Beachill looked sharp and back to his best, carving out his trademark full-length drives down the backhand wall and asking Willstrop to respond.

This accuracy, however, failed to pay dividends in the first game as a number of errors cancelled out the work he was putting in to limit his opponent's more naturally attacking game. Willstrop took it 11-8.

In the second, Beachill started to take more risks. The former World number 1 has spoken in interviews about changing his game to adapt to the fast pace of PAR scoring by looking for opportunities to attack earlier in the rally.

Leading 7-3, he was firing the ball in from all areas of the court, with Willstrop unable to catch up. The elder Yorkshireman evened things up 11-8.

At this point Willstrop started to dominate, but was clearly inhibited by Beachill's unpredictable game. The younger man won the next games to take the tie 3-1, and has now won 5 of their last 6 outings

The Final

Willstrop beats Pilley in 5 at Canary WharfThe final between Pilley and Willstrop was not one that many people would have predicted at the start of the week, and even fewer would have predicted that the Australian would push Willstrop to five games.

The two biggest men on the tour slugged it out for 78 minutes, with Willstrop coming back from 2-1 down to take his third Canary Wharf title.

It was great to see that this event has retained its atmosphere and continues to be a big draw in the calendar. Some other details stuck in my mind that other events would certainly benefit from - a decent programme for ticket holders with some proper editorial, and a willingness on behalf of the crowd to stay in their seats after a game and listen to the player interviews. If the players have the strength left to give a beside-court interview, it is the least one should expect of the spectators that they should show them some respect and hear them out.

ISS Canary Wharf Classic 2008

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