At any international tournament there are the big stars who win gold and glory and they deserve every plaudit that comes their way. At the 2016 Racketlon World Team championships last month the deserved glory was for Denmark as they claimed their first world team title, especially for their star players Ratzer and Jonsson. However, for GB there was also glory as our U16s and second team won their respective competitions, and they also deserve their plaudits. However, we all fell for our heroes, the GB4s, who claimed our hearts with their display of guts and effort to achieve a result that while it entailed no medal, it was far beyond all expectations. Here, having made his international teams debut in this competition, is (for once) professionally trained journalist, Joel Durston to bring you the inside scoop.
The Great Britain fourth team, while not taking home any silverware from this year's World Championships like many others, saw great success on their own terms. The team of newcomers – Shirley Barre, Joel Durston, Adit Patel and Stuart Rank, joined previous internationals James Watkins & Johnny Bispham to play in the 'amateur' category, a name ill-fitting the very high quality of racketlon in it, and came out of it more than holding their own, finishing sixth after two wins and two losses. (A small point but - since all players, even the 'elite' team players, are technically amateur, could the FIR rename the 'elite' and 'amateur' categories to something like the 'premiership' and 'championship' or 'cup' and 'shield'?)
The first match was a renewal of the age-old sporting rivalry – a massive tie against the third seeds Germany 2s. It was just as tight as expected – Great Britain finally prevailing in around two-and-half-hours after a very edgy last leg of tennis. GB, playing with Watkins and Rank as first and second singles respectively and Patel and Bispham in the doubles, found themselves down 18 after table tennis, but kept their heads high, feeling it was a strong sport for the Germans and not so much for themselves. And so it proved as all of the team won their badminton to make the tie exactly even going into squash. A couple of heavy squash wins from Barre 11-0 over Anita Voelkel and Rank 11-3 over Alexander Kaess helped them into a ten-point lead going into tennis, which left the tie perfectly poised as Watkins was the only tennis specialist in the side playing and the Germans were fairly strong at tennis. Watkins got the team off to a strong start with a 11-5 victory, before Shirley fought very hard for her seven points. Bispham and Patel got a respectable six against a strong tennis pair who, unlike the two Brits, looked to have played together before, leaving Rank with five points to earn to win the match, carrying the hopes of the nation (or his teammates at least) on his shoulders in his weakest sport. It wasn't pretty, but the performance was the height of 'gritty', overcoming an umpire overrule of his line call, chasing down every ball possible, slowing the game down and forcing Kaess into just enough errors to get the necessary five points (at 5-8) and take the victory. The Germans may well have the football for the moment, but at least England (more accurately Britain) has the racketlon.
Next up was the fearsome Danish second team, with World No.14 Mikael Jansen in the first singles. Johnny Bispham got the team off to strong start against him in the TT, with an 11-2 win, and in the doubles Watkins and Patel took a 11-5 victory, but Barre and Durston both succumbed to 11-2 losses. The real damage was done in the badminton, a notorious strong sport for the Danes, with 11-2 losses in both singles rubbers and the doubles and Shirley doing very well to get six against Karina Jorgensen, who has been in the Danish women's national team set up for badminton. In the squash Barre had a strong 11-2 win and Watkins and Patel battled to a 15-13 victory, while Durston lost 12-10 and Bispham fell to a 11-3 defeat. But the one point overall advantage was nowhere enough to overturn the losses from badminton, meaning Jansen only had five to take to win the match, which he did comfortably. However, the match was played out and Johnny, in losing only 11-9, and the rest of the side gave a good showing, albeit purely for pride (and practice), including an 11-7 win for Durston.
...So, out of the main draw but still playing for position – and more importantly, national pride. Against Switzerland 2s, the team lined up with Watkins as first singles, Bispham as second and Durston and Rank on doubles (with ever-present Barre as the woman player). Amazingly, Bispham was the only player to lose the TT. His opponent, Simon Engler, is an incredible TT player, with devilish spin on his serve, but (as Bispham will not tire of telling you) he is someone who has beaten Ratzer at TT so will never be happy with an 11-3 loss – and he wasn't here. Still, an eight-point overall lead going into badminton was a strong start and it was bolstered by an 11-point gain from badminton, which stayed exactly the same after squash, ensuring a tight finish. Watkins made a good start in tennis with an 11-7 win, before Barre and her opponent Adeline Kilchenmann took the (clay) court as the rain began. With the game so tight and two players who, while fit and willing to fight were not tennis specialists, it was classic racketlon tennis, with several long rallies. At around the halfway point, with the scoring neck-and-neck, the rain had grown from drizzle to a pretty serious downpour, to the extent the Swiss player was clearly having a bit of trouble seeing through her glasses! But both players and teams thought because they had started this rubber outside they may as well finish it outside. Then, mid-rally, at around eight-all, it absolutely bucketed down, quickly reducing the court to a puddle on both sides, with the lines practically invisible. After a good thirty seconds of the rally, everyone made a hasty dash inside. Eventually, after drying out, another warm up, Kilchenmann prevailed 15-13, after over thirty minutes in total. This left Durston and Rank with eight to get from their rubber to win the match. They traded blows until 3-3, then some strong volleying, especially from Durston, took them to 7-3, on the brink of victory. A combination of British nerves and a strong last-gasp effort from the Swiss ensured they fought back to 7-7, but a strong unreturned serve from Rank sealed another fine win for Great Britain, after a marathon three hours!
...Such was the length of the match they had to go straight on again, against Denmark 3s, lining up with Watkins and Patel on first and second singles respectively and Durston and Rank continuing the successful doubles partnership. They finished table tennis four down...only to face an absolute massacre in badminton, this time even greater than against Denmark 2s as their 3s included two players who play on the professional badminton circuit, Christian Lind Thomsen who is the current World no. 91 and Joachim 'The Spider' Persson, who has been World no. 6! The rest of the squad were a bit handy too. Watkins put in an incredible effort to get seven against Malte Thyregod and it was all Barre, a strong badminton player herself, could do to get three points against Julie Irby Norregaard. Thomsen was so strong that his partner would just serve or return and then step completely off court, making it a singles against Rank, a strong player in his own right, and Durston. The British pair still only managed one point – and that was a net cord! Patel showed amazing tenacity and athleticism, doing full length dives on a couple of occasions, to earn two points against Persson; which, such is the Dane's quality, felt like a victory. The Danes were far less strong in squash, and wins from all players meant the Brits pulled back 22 points overall, but it still left them needing to overcome an eight-point deficit in the tennis. Watkins got them off to a positive start with an 11-8 win and Barre battled well to take nine points. It was all down to Durston and Rank to give the team as much chance as possible on the final leg. Their 15-13 victory was hard-earned but not quite enough, leaving Adit needing 11-4 for the gummi and 11-3 for the win – a tough ask for any player let alone Patel, a quality racketlon player but not one experienced at tennis.
Persson took the win 5-2, but it was another great effort from the Brits, the only fourth team in the fourteen-team amateur category, all the others being second or third teams, and one which showed fine team spirit for a side of players who have not played together before. Their strong finish, coupled with the fact that at least a dozen other Brits could have played instead and in all likelihood done a good job too, shows the strength in depth of British racketlon.