Irish champion: Roland Budd
Over the last weekend in June, Cambridge University was conferring degrees, so academics and students were attending ceremonies and festivities in their hoods and gowns, proud parents were sweltering in suits and hats in the sunshine, and tourists were enjoying photo-opportunities in the narrow lane beside the Senate House as the new graduates emerged, parchments in hand. The Senate House ceremony was clearly the focus of activity for many of those in Cambridge for the weekend… but it was not the only show in town. A short walk from the Senate House brought the well-informed visitor to the Cambridge University Real Tennis Club, on Grange Road, where the eighth annual Irish Real Tennis Association Championship was in progress. The outfits on the tennis court were more practical and less colourful, but the heat was just the same; the participants were running around more; and there was rather less Latin.
The CURTC is one of only a few venues in the world with two real tennis courts, and the IRTA had the use of both for the Saturday of its competition, and on the Sunday morning, so in between competitive matches, court time was made available for practice and for friendly doubles games. The tournament got underway on Saturday morning and group matches were played off handicap throughout the day, concluding on Sunday morning. The semi-finalists in both Irish Open and Irish Closed competitions were decided on the results of the same group matches.
The holder of the Irish Closed title, Stuart Baxter, went undefeated in his group, though winning two of his three matches, against uncle and nephew Matthew and Ferdi Boucher, by the narrowest of margins. The two Bouchers and Philip Balbirnie improved with every minute spent on court, and by the end of the weekend each was surely playing ahead of the handicap level he had been assigned at the outset.
In the second group Oliver Boucher was unbeaten, but unfortunately had to cede his semi-final place to allow time to catch a ferry on Sunday. This meant that Doris Siedentopf proceeded to the Open semi-final from the second group, having won two of her three matches. Roland Budd qualified for the Irish Closed semi-final at the expense of Mike Bolton.
The third group saw some remarkable results, with two players victorious in two matches and yet winning fewer games than a third, Robert Hird, who won only one match but accumulated 14 games and therefore emerged to play in the Open semi-finals. Mark Heffernan was unfortunate to miss out on qualification from this closely contested group. David Lowry and Fionn Sweeney went through to the Irish Closed semi-finals, and David also emerged as the fourth semi-finalist in the Open competition.
The first of the Open semi-finals saw Robert Hird, a single-figure handicapper with his right hand, but competing in this tournament with his left, off a handicap of 50, capitalise on that advantage against Stuart Baxter (34) to win 6–2. David Lowry (50) defeated Doris Siedentopf (62) 6–5, in the other semi-final, but only just — it was a keenly-contested match which went to 5–all, 40–all.
The semi-finals and final of the Irish Closed competition were played, as has become customary, off two-thirds of handicap difference. The first of these involved Fionn Sweeney (42) and Roland Budd (29), with the latter building on an early lead to win 6–1. David Lowry and Stuart Baxter, each playing his second semi-final of the day, provided an entertaining spectacle on the blue court. The handicap difference (and perhaps also the effects of the transatlantic flight on Saturday morning) proved too much for the hotly-tipped Stuart, and David qualified for his second final, 6–3.
The competition then paused for lunch and to watch an exhibition match between Peter Paterson, one of the CURTC professionals, and Ali Hakimi, current CURTC captain. This impressive game, as well as the two finals, were filmed by Paul Brown of the CURTC, and coverage was streamed live on the internet (see JustinTV).
Both finalists in the Open competition were playing off a handicap of 50, although it was clear that each had improved significantly in the course of the weekend. Robert Hird’s ‘wrong hand’ struggled, however, with the vigorous approach taken by David Lowry, who made liberal use of all playing surfaces of the court throughout the weekend, finding a variety of unlikely angles, as well as playing some more measured and precise tennis. David took the Open Championship 10–3, and then, after only a few minutes’ pause, embarked on his second final of the afternoon.
The finalists in the Irish Closed competition were separated by 21 handicap points in the online handicap system, but it appeared that the two-thirds difference which was actually applied for the match was probably a more accurate reflection of David Lowry’s improvement in the course of a busy weekend of tennis. Although Roland Budd went ahead, leading at one stage by 8 games to 3 and then by 9 games to 4, David held his concentration and won a series of games before eventually losing out 10–8.
The IRTA very much enjoyed the use of the two courts at Cambridge, and with most participants not having the opportunity to play frequently, the chance of additional court time was eagerly embraced. The IRTA is most grateful to the CURTC — Committee, members, and professionals — for making their Club available for the tournament over the weekend; and to Kees and Peter for assistance with the organisation of the event in advance and in the course of the weekend.
Some of the first (the first?) real tennis footage to appear on YouTube was posted by an IRTA member following a trip to Cambridge in 2006, but this was the first IRTA tournament to be broadcast live on the web, and many thanks are due to the CURTC and Paul Brown in this regard — as well as to those who were watching in Ireland and sent comments in the course of Sunday afternoon.
Following the presentation of prizes, Mike Bolton provided a short update on the position regarding the court on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin, as well as thanking the players and pros for their participation. The 120th anniversary of the World Championship match on the Earlsfort Terrace court fell only a few weeks ago, at the end of May, and the IRTA hopes to see tennis return to the court before long.
The IRTA thanks all of those who came to Cambridge for the tournament — players, markers, and supporters — and who contributed to the success of the weekend, and looks forward to the next IRTA Championship weekend, in 2011.
— Roland Budd
Many thanks to Mark Heffernan and David Lowry for these pictures.