UK Racketlon

Written by James Pope

Jesper Ratzer and Martina Meißl defended their titles as the Racket Masters after triumphing on a blustery weekend at the Surrey Sports Park.  After two previous world tour visits to the SSP played in unusually exceptional weather, the 2016 event saw players battle the outside tennis in conditions that were a far more accurate representation of a British Summer.  Elsewhere there were titles for: Katie Barclay (Ladies B), Luke Griffiths (Men’s C & U13s), Lillian Druve (Ladies Vets), Ross Wilson (Men’s D), Martyn Langston (Men’s O55s), Julian Clapp (Men’s 60s), David Bennett (U16s), Kresten Hougaard & Jesper Ratzer (Men’s A Doubles), Lieselot de Bleeckere & Lauren Whiteman (Ladies A Doubles), Barbara Capper & Dan Busby (Mixed A Doubles), Michelle Hall & Alistair Prades (Mixed B Doubles) and Jon Ben & Martyn Langston (Men’s D Doubles).  However, the true star of the weekend was Richard Middleton.  Entering four events and contesting 1287 points across 44 sets, he revelled in the opportunity to player lots of matches and came away with four winners trophies.  Richard dominated the Men’s B, Men’s B Doubles (with Mark Jackson), Men’s O45s and Men’s O45s Doubles (with Thomas Knaack), in a weekend where he finished with a record of: Played: 12 Won: 12 Sets For: 32 Sets Against: 12 Points For: 777 Points Against: 510.  All the results (not just Richards) can be found here.

The Men’s A was a 16 draw event which saw early British casualties as Dan Busby, Luke Barnes and Ray Jordan were both eliminated in round 1, a fate that also befell James Silvester despite his best efforts against Peter Duyck.  With Alex Du Noyer and Oliver Oxland both unable to upset the top seeded players Jesper Ratzer and Michi Dickert, home representation was left in the hands of Duncan Stahl, Leon Griffiths and the occasionally British (i.e. when he is winning) Jason Granville.  Kresten Hougaard returned Jason to being a Kiwi by beating him in a hard fought quarter-final, el president coming out on top in a 21-18, 21-19, 21-19, 14-13 victory.  Leon, not content with eliminating one Brit in the shape of Luke Barnes, edged a thrilling encounter with Duncan to secure the place of a Brit in the semi-finals at the expense of another.  After Duncan nicked the TT set 21-17, Leon dominated the badminton with an exceptional 21-3 victory.  Duncan hit back in the squash 21-7, leaving the match perfectly poised with a winner takes all tennis set.  Leon was 11-2 up at the halfway stage, but it was here that the vagaries of the weather came into play.  Saturday saw (well forecasted) gusting winds of around 40 mph, blowing directly down the tennis court, so that one player was hitting into the wind and the other hitting against.  The change of ends, and change of wind came to Duncan’s aid and 11-2 was changed into 20-20 and sudden death, the first to two clear points.  Leon however dug deep to find the 2 points he needed.  With top seeds Ratzer (vs Thomas Knaack) and Michi Dickert (vs Peter Duyck) both progressing with relative ease it set us up for an enthralling evening session.  

First up was the defending champion against the upcoming star, Ratzer vs Griffiths a re-run of last year’s first round tie.  With vociferous support, Leon started well, winning the first TT point, but after that it was an uphill struggle.  Fighting hard throughout the TT, badminton and squash sets, the young Brit was defeated 21-6, 21-11, 21-13.  In the other semi-final, it was Denmark vs Austria as Hougaard took on Dickert.  Michi nicked the opening two sports, 21-19 and 22-20, before Kresten struck back with a 21-12 victory in squash, giving the FIR President a slender 5 point lead into the tennis.  Under the floodlights of the SSP, Dickert was able to control the tennis set, getting his nose in front and allowing him to keep the Dane at bay, a 21-11 victory ensuring the top seeds would progress to the final.  In the final, Ratzer displayed excellent control, opening up a healthy lead into the squash after 21-10 victories in both the TT and the badminton.  Dickert fought hard in the squash, throwing everything at the world number 1 and he opened up a narrow 2 point lead as the set progressed towards its conclusion.  However, Ratzer, dug deep and found that little bit extra to come back to pinch the squash set 21-19 and seal his place as the Racket Master.  Jesper is now just three IWT/SWT titles behind the Racketlon legend, Magnus Eliasson.  Leon Griffiths finished third, defeating Kresten Hougaard thanks to exceptional displays in the badminton and tennis.  Leon revealed in his walk on video a desire to dominate in Dressage, and his natural ability to control another beast was clear as he dismantled Kresten on the tennis court.  

In the Ladies A, the top 4 seeds awaited the Round 1 victors in the quarter-finals and these opening matches were all British affairs.  With the Russell sisters, Kate (defeating Kathryn Milne) and Lorna (defeating Jo Shelley) progressing in the top half and Kim Hay (seeing off Shirley Barre) and Hannah Boden receiving a walk over, the quarterfinal line ups were completed.  Lorna Russell was rewarded for victory over Jo with a match up against world number 2, Lillian Druve.  After receiving two heavy defeats in the TT and badminton (both 21-3 to Lillian), Lorna showed excellent resolve to force the match to tennis with a 21-5 squash victory.  Sadly, it was still too tough an ask and Lillian progressed to the semi-finals.  In the semi’s, Lillian would face the up and coming Briton, Lauren Whiteman, who polished off t’other Russell, Kate, requiring just 9 in the tennis to progress, which she did with ease.  In the bottom half of the draw, it was overseas triumphs all round.  Lieselot de Bleeckere ended the challenge of Kim Hay, strong TT and badminton wins giving her a cushion to weather the inevitable Hay-storm on the squash court.  With the young Belgian needing 10 to win on the tennis court, she was caused a nervous wobble as Kim flew out the blocks opening up an early lead, however Lieselot recovered to ensure victory.  She was joined in the semi’s by defending champion, Martina Meißl, who won a pulsating encounter against Hannah Boden.  The young Yorkshire lass held a slight lead going into squash, but Martina was able pull out a big win (21-6) on the squash court to ensure she needed just 12 at tennis to progress, which she knocked off with aplomb.  

So, as predicted in the preview, the top 4 seeds all made the semi-finals, however here the predictive skills of UK Racketlon went somewhat array (again).  Racketlon, the sport where every point counts can be brutally cruel, you can win three of the four sports and still lose the match.  Some would argue this is unfair, but personally I feel that this is the edge that makes Racketlon different, and special.  In the first semi-final, Lillian Druve took the first three sports against Lauren Whiteman, 21-17, 21-18 and 21-13, leaving her the target of just 7 points at tennis to win.  But, in blustery conditions, Lauren produced a master class in consistency and achieved an incredible 21-2 victory in the tennis to progress to the final, leaving a shell shocked Swede in her wake.  The second semi-final, was a repeat of the 2015 Racket Masters final, a thrilling affair that was edged by Meißl by 3 points over de Bleeckere.  Seemingly, the difference between these ladies is still wafer thin.  After sharing the TT and badminton sets, Lieselot held a slender 1 point lead into squash.  Martina took the squash to 16 meaning she would need 19 and Lieselot 21 to claim the second spot in the final.  The tennis gusted around like the wind, both players fighting the conditions and the match situation, however it was Martina who once again tasted success and took the win by 3 points under the floodlights.  In the final, Martina was just too strong for Lauren, wrapping up the defence of her title with a 21-14, 21-17, 21-7 victory, very sensibly avoiding going near a tennis court against Lauren after her semi-final display.  Despite the final defeat, Lauren is continuing her excellent 2016, having collected the English Open title and second places in the British Championships and now the Racket Masters.  Lillian recovered from her semi-final defeat, by beating Lieselot, after the opening 3 sports were cagey 2 point victories, Lillian dominated the first half of the tennis to ensure a comfortable victory in the end running out a 21-19, 19-21, 20-22, 21-7 victor to complete the podium.  

The Men’s B was the first of the Richard Middleton domination, with his title in this event secured by defeating Alistair Prades in the final.  Richard had seen off youngster Piers Boden while Alistair defeated Mark Harris in a semi-final that featured a 27-25 badminton set won by Mark.  Alistair won the opening two sports, with 21-19 and 21-6 victories in TT and badminton, but he had no answers for Richard in the squash and tennis, 21-3 and 21-5 wins for Richard giving him the Men’s B title.  Piers Boden claimed third place on the podium after he won the all Yorkshire tie against Mark Harris.  Richard’s other singles title came in the Men’s O45s, as expected Richard faced Jason Granville in the final and Richard was able to come away victorious, again his dominance on the squash court a decisive factor in his victory.  Rakesh Gupta claimed third place ahead of Hans van Daele.  

Katie Barclay and Rosalind Crawley emerged victorious from their 3 player boxes to contest the Ladies B final.  A fiercely contested final was win by Katie 21-14, 21-16, 19-21 11-12 a great win for Katie, who is recovering from a broken right ring finger!  Dianne Baker claimed third place with a topsy-turvy win over Jo Bennett.  Dianne won the first two sports, 21-16 and 21-9 to have a healthy lead into squash, and leading 17-4 on the squash court, seemed to have third place all sown up.  However Jo roared back to a 21-19 squash victory and despite having a point to secure a gumi-arm at 20-6 up in the tennis, Dianne managed to squeak over the line for the victory and third place.  

The Men’s C saw the continuing rise of the younger Griffiths brother, Luke.  The brothers, who could be UK Racketlon’s equivalent of the Brownlee’s or Murray’s are both exceptionally talented players with a great attitude to the sport.  In the Men’s C, 12 year old Luke smiled his way to victories over Hans van Daele, Simon Brown and then James Langworthy in the final.  Built on a bedrock of badminton and supreme tennis control, Luke claimed yet another title in his young Racketlon career.  Simon Brown defeated James Pope to take third place, a close match with the exception of the TT….  There was further Junior success as Ross Wilson, also under 13 years in age, defeated George Roberts in the Men’s D final, a heavy badminton win for Ross the main difference between the pair.  The junior events were also keenly contested with a 5 player U13s round robin event and a 7 player monrad in the U16s.  The U13s came down to the match between Will Gregson and Luke Griffiths, which Luke again dominated in the badminton and the tennis, despite a brave fight from Will.  Matthew Davidson claimed third spot on the podium.  The U16s filtered down to a final between Ross Wilson (of Men’s D title fame) and David Bennett (fresh from his double U16s world titles last month in Copenhagen).  David grasped a nervy TT set 22-20, before Ross won the badminton to 12,  However solid wins in the squash and tennis ensured that David would add a first world tour singles title to his collection.  Daniel Ryan just saw off the challenge from Kieran Shelley to take 3rd place in the best/cruellest fashion, a gumi-arm needed to separate these two players, tough on Kieran who had also missed out on a place in the final by just 2 points against Ross Wilson!  As ever the junior events showed just how exceptional the UK talent pool is in these categories and the performance of these players in the banded singles is equally heartening (apart from those of us losing to them in these classes!).  

That said it is not just the juniors who can cut it on the banded singles scene, many of the Vets players also featuring across the singles classes including a number of elite players.  In the Ladies Vets, the champion was Lillian Druve, who dominated the event.  A semi-final victory over Sue Gotham was followed up with a final victory over Heike Voigt to claim the title in some style.  Sue Gotham rounded out the podium places.  Duncan Marlow and Martyn Langston won their respective 3 player box leagues in the Men’s O55s, before Martyn won an intriguing final.  A 21-13 TT victory for Martyn, was followed up with a 24-22 Badminton win and a 22-20 squash win and these two vets gave it their all in the middle sports, however Duncan was left with too much to do in the tennis, Martyn sealing a deserved victory.  Nigel D’Arcy finished third.  In the Men’s O60s, Julian Clapp was dominant, winning the 4 player round robin with consummate ease, John McCredie finishing second and Ian Cooke third.  

Over to the doubles now and there was a further Racket Masters title for Jesper Ratzer, as with partner Kresten Hougaard they defeated Dan Busby & Duncan Stahl in the Men’s A Doubles final, the Danes doing enough over the first three sports (21-18, 21-15, 22-20) to ensure that the tennis equation was a simple one for victory.  Leon Griffiths & James Silvester claimed third place, to add to their Latvian Open title as a pairing.  In the Ladies A doubles, it was victory for Lieselot de Bleeckere & Lauren Whiteman who overcame the challenge of Hannah Boden & Lillian Druve in the final.  After losing the first two sports, the “L’s” came back in the squash and tennis to secure victory by way of a gumi-arm.  Asked to serve, tennis specialist Lauren held her nerve to serve in to Lillian before showing no mercy in drilling the return at Hannah at the net to take the win.  Barbara Capper & Martina Meißl finished third.  Barbara Capper & Dan Busby won the Mixed A doubles defeating Martina Meißl & Kresten Hougaard in the final, the crucial difference coming on the tennis court after three cagey opening sports.  Lauren Whiteman & Leon Griffiths combined to take third spot on the podium.  

The Mixed B Doubles was won by Michelle Hall & Alistair Prades who proved too strong for opponents Shirley Barre & Paul Mathieson in the first two sports to win despite squash defeat.  However, it was a dramatic final, which featured Michelle giving pre-badminton sports massage to opponent Shirley to get her onto the badminton court, only to need an injury timeout herself after tweaking her own back during the badminton set.  More regulation drama for Dianne Baker & James Pope who claimed third place saving a couple of match points to burgle the final spot on the podium off the Shelleys.  In the Men’s D doubles Jon Ben & Martyn Langston combined to beat Andy & Ben Major to the title, Cedric Letheic & Hans van Daele finishing third.  

All that leaves is the Men’s B Doubles and the Men’s O45 Doubles, and they have been deliberately left to the end.  Both these titles also went to Richard Middleton, a man who displays immense fitness and commitment to Racketlon whilst also being one of the nicest players on the tour.  Partnered by Thomas Knaack in the Men’s O45s, they won the three pairings round robin without dropping a sport, Hans van Daele & Graham Norton their closest rivals in second place.  Finally, we turn to Richard’s fourth event, the highly competitive Men’s B Doubles.  In the final, Richard and partner Mark Jackson faced the Kent pairing of Mark Steeden & Johnny Bispham.  However, Kent’s finest were unable to stop the Middleton machine, Mark and Richard recovering from a TT defeat to win the final three sports and take home the title.  Graham Norton & Alistair Prades defeated Jordan Dainty & Duncan Marlow to secure third place.  

So, there we have it, despite the wind and Friday’s rain, the tournament was played with the nearly all draws played to completion, a feat that should be heralded.  That players can get 4 singles matches in a 16 draw is a testament to the hard work before hand from Duncan Stahl, Keith Lesser & (especially on the schedule) Ray Jordan in combination with the excellent volunteer support of Rachel Pitson, Helen Ford, Dominique Ford, Steve Bispham and Geoff Jordan to ensure that this was a feasible ambition.  A massive thanks to all the players for playing their part in making this happen and being malleable to adjust to the scheduling as it changed.  From here the UK Tour lines up for a busy September with the South Eastern Open (Limpsfield, 4th September), North of England Open (York, 11th September) and the Richard Lawrence Open (Abingdon, 17th & 18th September) before the option of the FIR IWT Malta Open (23rd-25th September).  We hope to see you all soon!