The second team’s last fixture of the season was an away match against Finchley Manor IV. With WHII already confirmed as league winners, the pressure was somewhat reduced amongst the ranks. We were delighted to introduce two new players of the game we love to play into the team for our final match. Salve! to young Joseph and salve! to Paul, an erstwhile second team captain himself. So whilst specifically not new this year, Paul was making his 2016 debut. He was paired with the steady, and reliably late, Marcio for the evening, whilst Philip was tasked with guiding Joseph through the travails of the fifth division. The pairings were completed by Greg and James, both still somewhat smarting since their poor showing in the WH men’s doubles final.
All three pairings got off to, quite frankly, terrible starts*. Joseph and Philip were up against the difficult first pair. They performed valiantly, and a little nervously, but lost 6-4. Meanwhile, Paul and Marcio were also struggling against the third pair who were dogged and troublesome. Both had good ground strokes but also some excellent and clinical volleying. The clay surface favours longer rallies, so their third pair’s ability to intercept and volley the ball to safety was a potent weapon. Finally, Greg and James were going toe-to-toe against the second pair. Suffering from the well-documented macaroni cheese withdrawal symptoms, James was carried quite considerably by Greg. With the score line marching inexorably towards a tie break, it was at 4-5 on the FM serve that server’s and partner’s game went off frequency. After a series of deuces, a smash was delivered with considerable gusto to James’s feet. Getting a racket to the ball, the backspin-laden ball rose like some kind of a bird into the air. Coming down, the ball bounced on the other side of the net right next to the FM player. Due to the backspin, the ball leapt up and crossed back to the WH side. Seemingly a simple reach-over-and-put-away-kind-of-a-shot, the FM player came over all static. Gifting the point to Greg and James, it is somewhat an understatement to say that his partner was not best pleased. With a request to replay the point falling on deaf/incredulous ears, the Heathens took the next point and the set 6-4.
The second round of matches was as difficult for the Heathens as the first. The FM first pair were just too strong for Paul and Marcio, although they were certainly warming to the task. The same was true for Joseph and Philip. And as Greg was enforcing maltloaf rations at each change of ends, James was finally beginning to work a little better. By talking the second set 6-3, The Lovely Samantha informed the masses that the half-way aggregate score was 8-4 in favour of Finchley Manor. As they needed only 10 points to ensure a second place league finish and promotion, they certainly seemed on course as the minute waltz of the second round faded into the background.
But West Heath are a force to be reckoned with; it is not for no reason that league victory was secured with a match to spare. A fight back was inevitable, as the Heathens take nothing but beer and grapes lying down.
Talking about beer, James’s and Greg’s minds were finally focussed. With the maltloaf and banana deficits destroyed (and hesitation removed), it must be said that the first pair were performing unequivocally quite well. Greg is known for his pithy one-liners (to say nothing of his innuendo), and his favourite of the night was about “it being much easier to lead from the front”. Much like The Lovely Samantha had done the night before, Greg was bashing balls around with pin-point abandon. It left the first seeds on the right side of a 6-2 6-1 tour de Finchley. From a personal perspective, it left the pairing unbeaten in Middlesex for two years.
On the spectators’ benches there was a vociferous contingent from West Heath, and much of their attention was, perhaps quite rightly, directed to Joseph’s and Philip’s efforts on the far court. Having got off to a nervy start in the first two rubbers, they put their troubles behind them and were entirely relentless in their play. The FM 3rd pair, after the match, were full of praise for their serving, volleying, and ability to put the ball out of reach. To the sound of applause and whooping from the bench of travelling WH supporters, Philip and Joseph did a demolition job to win 6-2 6-0.
Paul’s and Marcio’s collective fortunes were also on the up. Tim had taken it upon himself to, from the side-lines, give them a talking to, and for once it may actually have worked. The second pair’s play improved a lot, and whilst it would be injudicious (and incorrect) to attribute the performance increase to Tim’s pep talk, it might be noted that perhaps we have found a use for WHII’s Mr Petulant as a motivational speaker. Those at the club’s tournament week must certainly be aware of his storytelling prowess in relation to the curious incident of the brother and the beard. Tim’s intervention notwithstanding, the second pair took their sets 6-2 6-1 in the kind of form reminiscent of last year’s season ending match when they were cohabiting a court in blissful harmony.
With all of the final round sets going the West Heath way, Samantha choked back, amongst other stuff, her surprise that the score had flipped from 4-8 to 16-8. The final round performance had sealed FM to a third successive third place finish in Division 5; in their stead Brondesbury take second place (by a single point) in the Division and, with it, promotion next year. The Lovely Samantha is looking forward to playing with their balls next year!
The post-match friendlies were taken in good sprits, in spite of FM’s understandable rueful disappointment at being so close to securing promotion. To their exceptional credit, they put it behind them (only mentioning it once or twice more) and hosted a most marvellous end of season meal. Their chef served up some excellent and plenteous Thai food, which was supplemented with a bit of beer and plenty of “banter”.
So as the tennis ball of destiny slams into the clay court ball mark inspection of inevitability, the 2016 summer league draws to a close. It has been a rip-roaring encounter, and a pleasure to organise such an august body (careful, Samantha) into another league-topping performance. Many thanks to all of you for playing, for reading, for cooking (Marjan!), and for supporting. So, until next year and the heady heights of the Middlesex Summer League North East Division 4! Hurrah!
* Some of this may be attributable to the not so sterling team talk delivered by the captain. For the first time this season, a pre-match team talk was requested. As there was no pressure for results, the captain told his team to go and have fun. Clearly this wasn’t sufficiently motivating.