Wednesday 13 May 2009

Digging behind the headlines from Euro Teams

ETC 2009The headlines (sic) reporting a double-English win may have lacked originality, but this year's European Team Championships was perhaps more remarkable for individual stories than the final result.

I think I might give up tournament predictions after suggesting that the English women might struggle against the Dutch in the Final of this year's European Team Championships. They went on to beat the Netherlands 3-0 - but more of that later ...

When writing that previous article I had forgotten that James Willstrop was injured (though happily on the mend); hence I overlooked what bearing this might have on the English men's chances of retaining the title. Alister Walker was also making his debut in the team, and was preparing for, as he put it, his "first big match in the shirt".

He went out first against Julien Balbo in the Final against France and put the team on a strong footing with an efficient 3-0 win: another French feather in the bandanna after memorable victories over Greg Gaultier and Renan Lavigne in his run at Canary Wharf last year.

With Willstrop missing and Lee Beachill retired, Nick Matthew was the senior member of the squad and duly delivered against Greg Gaultier, taking their rubber in four games. Matthew has put together a strong run since coming back from injury; a shame this has come towards the end of the season. If he can maintain fitness over the summer then 2009/10 has the potential to be his most fruitful year.

Peter Barker could not repeat his victory over Thierry Lincou at the same stage last year, and went down 3-0. This pitted Adrian Grant against Renan Lavigne in the decider for the title. There was nothing in it, and the Londoner eventually prevailed 13/11, 12/10 (Lavigne would have had to win 3-0 for the French to take title, or 3-1 and win on countback).

Taking the final rubber to win the event for his team was a nice personal accolade for Grant who, while (and I only found this out recently) the current English pro with the most PSA tour titles, has not won a 'big one' and perhaps doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Like the recently retired Vicky Botwright, his biggest wins may come wearing the England kit.

31 years and counting

I had been anticipating the England v Netherlands Final less for the impact that Botwright's absence might have on the rest of the England girls than the fact that it was Natalie Grinham's first outing since defecting from Australia.

It was not a debut to remember. Not content with having the hoodoo over one Grinham sister in recent times, Jenny Duncalf politely declined to read the script for Natalie's appearance in orange. It went to five, with Duncalf prevailing 11/8 in the final game.

This was the second rubber after Alison Waters had beaten Vanessa Atkinson in straight games. Atkinson has slid down the rankings in the past couple of years, but has still managed to reach a number of finals in the past 12 months. I can't quite decide whether she's in terminal decline; I always seem to arrive at events after she's been knocked out so can only really go on recent results. Maybe being in the unaccustomed position of Dutch number 2 will have some bearing on her future as a pro.

Laura Lengthorn-Massaro beat Annelize Naude, and the unblemished run in this event was extended to 31 years.

This double English win might not have made for stirring headlines, even within the squash world, but the smaller stories written in Malmo gave food for thought. How will Grinham fare in the Dutch team (the next Women's World Teams is in 2010)? Will any of the English women be ready to mount a sustained challenge to the top three next season? Does the performance of the English men suggest that England still possess real strength in depth? (I don't see a young Ashour or El Shorbagy coming up behind them; the Men's World Teams in September may be a sterner test).

One other story that hasn't received much column space was Tanya Bailey's return from injury. She beat Ireland's Tanya Owens on Day 3, though didn't appear in the Final. In an interview she mentioned that she would soon be off for a hip operation. Though her career has been beset by illness and injury, like Botwright she has been a fantastic servant for her country, and has had many successes in England colours. She will be 30 later this year, and it would be sad if the former World Junior Champion did not appear next season for one last crack at the big titles that have eluded her.

Finals results:

Alister Walker 3-0 Julien Balbo
11/1, 11/7, 14/12

Nick Matthew 3-1 Gregory Gaultier
11/9, 8/11, 12/10, 11/5

Peter Barker 0-3 Thierry Lincou
13/15, 7/11, 7/11

Adrian Grant 2-0 Renan Lavigne
13/11, 12/10

Alison Waters 3-0 Vanessa Atkinson
12/10, 14/12, 11/7

Jenny Duncalf 3-2 Natalie Grinham
11/5, 11/7, 5/11, 8/11, 11/8

Laura Lengthorn-Massaro 2-0 Annelize Naude
12/10, 11/2

Tournament photos
ETC 2009

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