Reigning world champion Robert Fulford from England won the Victorian Open croquet singles today after defeating world number four Trevor Bassett from Victoria in a thrilling match full of skill. Fulford, who has won five world titles, was superb in his 3-2 victory - a match that both players will be proud of. In the first game Robert completed a sextuple peel, the croquet equivalent of a double century in cricket. In the third game he revived a breakdown to complete a quintuple peel. Clearly the champion was in fine form. He'd already completed eight in the tournament so far from only thirteen games. Yet despite this, local Trevor Bassett won games two and four in a performance that was similarly impressive, though less bullish on peels.
We had a crowd of about 80 spectators that began arriving at 7:30am for the 8:00am match on New Years Day. They weren't disappointed. We normally have about a dozen.
The Victorian Open Singles Championship in Melbourne began this year with a record number of 44 entries playing a single round robin in 6 blocks. The 6 block winners, 6 runner ups and the 4 players with the highest % of points played a best-of-3 knockout round of 16, with a best-of-5 final on News Years Day. Interstate visitors had travelled from NSW, SA and QLD, World number 1, Robert Fulford, flew over for the event and no less than eight current or former Australian team members played. The in-form tea ladies wished to remain anonymous.
The courts were in excellent condition and were freshly mown for the first day but certainly not playing quickly. Due to the massive amounts of rain over the proceeding three weeks the courts were a bit softer than usual - in some places players got "that sinking feeling" as the soft bent grass and moist soil gave a cushioning effect. As a result the hoops were very forgiving and the combined conditions made the venue into a peeler's paradise. The temperature a very comfortable 20-25 degrees.
Play began at 8:00am and the seeds soon asserted their authority in the block round games. The turn of the day, witnessed by about 25 spectators, was Robert Fulford's attempted 9 peels on partner ball. He managed 7 and finished his turn, an ominous sign that the champion is revelling in the easy conditions. The Basset dynasty continued to impress with Ian taking the initiative after Trevor appeared to be having, for him, an off day. Second seeds Northey and Beard were solid and Beard attempted a SXP in their fourth game although it became increasingly unlikely after he failed to peel 1-back twice. Ken Bald and George Latham were undefeated, their quest for a semi-final berth aided by Ketelaars and Watkins dropping a game. Claire Gorten and Ashley Faulkner had a good day and won 4/4. Harley Watts and David Shipston were also undefeated as were Chris Borlase and Mark Senior.
Outside the seeds there were some players who deserve special mention. Chloe Aberley, a 15 year-old from NSW played very well and displays the qualities of a future champion. Her single ball shots were particularly good and she appears very determined. Miranda Morgan, 17, similarly has the same sort of youthful fearlessness that I once used to enjoy but am now insanely jealous of. Both of these young women have bright futures in the croquet world and will continue to improve with experience. Former AFL legend, Barry Vagg played and showed his sporting talents are put to good use on the court. At 60 he feels he discovered the game a bit too late, but perhaps that was the abundance of youth that contributed to such a conclusion.
The block rounds were completed and the best of three rounds for the final 16 began. In the 40+ degree heat there was always the potential for a few upsets, and the very real danger of heat stroke, and competitors did their best to stay cool as the action got hot. The way the tournament is scheduled the two block seeds meet in the last game. Also there were four wildcard places up for grabs so even if a player had a few losses they could still advance providing they had a high percentage of points. This ensured there was plenty of excitement surrounding the concluding games.
In block A, Robert Fulford was in awesome form and completed four sextuples (one, from accounts, at Elsternwick - a tricky place to lay down a triple let alone a sextuple) but a failed sextuple against George Latham cost him the game. George deserves some praise for his win, he is still very competitive and playing solidly. It's an inspiration to see him continue his long and successful playing career. Unfortunately for George the heat got to him and he lost a game and qualified as the runner-up. Fortunately for the tournament this kept Robert and Trevor in separate halves of the draw.
In block B, Trevor Bassett completed six triples from seven games conceding only 7 hoops against. Trevor has been very determined in the tournament so far and is also in great form. The runner-up in the block was Rosemary Graham who played exceptionally well to win six games. Great effort.
Block C saw Max Donati emerge as the winner on points to Harley Watts. This, for me, was the most interesting block as Kenn Boal was playing well as was Claire Gorton. Harley, like a few other players in the tournament, was returning to the competitive croquet scene from a long break and had his game going very nicely. He completed three TPs and looked strong.
Block D had myself as the top-seed but was won by Simon Watkins who lost only to Chloe Aberley. Chloe found her form in the heat and also defeated Miranda Morgan. Miranda was in contention to win the block but a loss to Simon relegated her to third on points. I felt quite lucky to finish runner-up having lost to Miranda the day before.
In E, Charlotte Morgan couldn't continue her astounding run of victories and Ken Bald won with Ian Bassett runner-up. Bald is an outstanding shooter, and has a very solid game to back it up. Both he and Bassett will be dangerous opponents in the knock-out stage.
In block F it was Kevin Beard who was the only seed apart from Trevor to go through undefeated. He nabbed four TPs on the way to add to his impressive tally this year (around 25 I think) and was also shooting well. Steven Ketelaars, returning from a lengthy spell, won 5/6 and it's terrific to see him back on the court. In third place was Penny Krstev who secured a triple, much to her and the Victorian selector's delight. Congratulations Penny.
And so it was that the blocks concluded. There was one final twist of fate in the allocation of the wildcards. The four wildcards would be given to the players with the highest percentage of points. Due to an oversight there was no stipulation on games won. This meant that Miranda Morgan, who had won four, didn't qualify but Chloe Aberley, who had won three, did. One could only feel for Miranda missing out after playing so well but if it's any consolation the Vic has a habit of righting previous wrongs so she can expect some luck to go her way in future opens. The other wildcards were Kenn Boal, Charlotte Morgan and Chris Borlase.
The heat was well and truly on as the temperature soared into the 40's and at about 3:30pm the round of 16 matches began. Right on cue a cool change blew in and temperatures dropped 10 degrees. Play would continue until dark due to the busy schedule and any unfinished matches would be concluded the next day. I'll run down the list and briefly comment on the matches.
Robert Fulford continued to demonstrate why he's number one in the world with yet another SXP in his first game against Chris Borlase. Chris made the first 9 in the second but was peeled out. I think he had a chance to win but something went wrong. He will certainly do well over in New Zealand in their opens. Go Chris.
Myself and Ian Bassett were the slowest players of the lot and we had a good battle. In the first I nearly completed a quad and pegged out Ian's ball and mine to leave him with a shot and a clip on 4-back. He missed and game one to me. In the second, which was played into the dark, Ian missed his peg out and took one off leaving me for four-back and one. I took the four-back ball to the peg, laid up in corner 1 with Ian in corner 4. Ian shot at the peg and missed but I was stymied on his ball. I two-balled but was hampered after 6 so laid a rush. Ian, in darkness, hit the peg from the corner. Great shot. The next day Ian won with an immaculate 7th turn TP.
Rosemary Graham and Kevin Beard had a similarly fierce battle that went into the night. Kevin won the first 26-11 which I thought was a good effort as Rosemary was striking the ball so well. The second game was great but had to be pegged down overnight. Kevin finally prevailed in the morning after Rosemary gave him one too many with his single ball.
Max Donati went into overdrive against Kenn Boal and completed two triples to take the match in straight games, as well as an early night. Max seemed to lift his intensity and willed himself into form. He was very talkative to himself and obviously determined.
Simon Watkins had to overcome Chloe Aberley, who had beaten him earlier that day, and when Chloe took the first 26-24 I thought he was gone. The second game was pegged down and Simon won it the next day 26-15. He took the third 26-10 but Chloe should be very proud of herself. Despite the controversy surrounding the allocation of wildcards, she got on with the job and nearly took the match.
Ken Bald beat a tiring George Latham. I don't have any info on this match but one wonders how George would have gone were the match played the next day. To be fair I'm sure that Ken would have played even better after a good night's sleep, too.
Harley Watts rolled his former doubles partner, Steven Ketelaars, in straight games. It will take a bit more time for Steven to fully return to top-level croquet. As I know firsthand it can take a while to get back into the winning mentality. In this regard Harley is leading the way.
Trevor Bassett won with two TPs against Charlotte Morgan. Trevor is certainly in great form and his completion of triples is awesome. While he hasn't attempted a SXP, he's been almost flawless with his triples and the world rankings will show how many he's getting. Outstanding.
Days three, four and five were exclusively singles play so we got to see some outstanding individual performances today in the qualifying rounds. The blocks were double seeded round robin with either seven or eight players. At least two from each block advanced and perhaps a third depending on points as there are two wildcard entries into the quarters. Life as a seed should be pretty straightforward in theory, but those who know the Vic expect a few defeated seeds in the opening rounds. Today, I am pleased to write, was no exception. But more on that later, first let's pay homage to Robert Fulford and his magnificent three sextuples and a near fourth one in his games.
Spectators were promised a feast of top-level play prior to the tournament and Robert has not disappointed them. You can tell where he is playing by the crowds, almost one and a half deep in places, and if you were blind you'd still know where he was by the appreciative applause. Robert obviously decided to make the most of the conditions today and I don't think a single hoop was scored against him. Perhaps gods really can win all their games +26. Well, that might change a bit in the finals but Robert is certainly playing well and looks very comfortable out there in his quest for his first Australian title. The sextuples, from accounts, were completed with few unplanned variations. One thing that impressed me as I was glancing over was his ability to peel the ball from a reasonably long distance. I asked him how he does it and he replied that he gets out on the court and tries a lot of peeling shots and works out the pull. I was almost hoping he'd let slip a secret, but there is none. It's just good old-fashioned hard work and trial and error.
In other games the seeds were peeling well, too, but the rate of turnovers was a little high to be described as world-class. Ian Basset lost a game to Charlotte Morgan, who had an exceptional day defeating the other seed Ken Bald at the Brighton courts. She almost deserves a whole paragraph to herself but her daughter, too, was undefeated - she beat me in a late game thriller having had one ball pegged out earlier. I had the game "on my mallet" but missed the peg out with both balls and Miranda showed me how to finish a game the next turn. It was nice to see. The Morgans are very enthusiastic about croquet and they are showing some great form in the singles. Some readers may remember Owen Morgan from croquet folk lore and, yes, he is Charlotte's husband and Miranda's father. Another dynasty in the making perhaps.
Harley Watts played well with three triples from four games. His victorious opponent in his only losing game was the fun-loving Claire Gorten. Claire is twenty and a member of the NSW team, she certainly has the right stuff to make an impression on the competitive croquet scene. I noticed she was picking up a few tips on the swing from Trevor Basset (who hit a 105 yard roquet after the tournament dinner) and she was hitting them straight in the games I saw her play. She didn't have it all her way, though, Kenn Boal resurrected himself from court obscurity to beat her and win 3/4. When Kenn plays well it's a wonderful sight. All three players are in block C and it would be great to see a wildcard advance.
After the groundbreaking sextuple in the first game, Fulford was headed to repeat the manoeuvre dubbed "The realm of the Gods" in the second but due to 'wiring' (a rule that demands a ball be able to at least have an open shot on another) he practically handed Bassett a gift from the Gods. To be fair, the leave was only millimetres from being completely perfect - had Bassett's preferred ball not been wired it would have been a very difficult shot, effectively for the game. Bassett took the opportunity with vigour and chose to make nine hoops and offer the champion a difficult shot. The champion missed and he was away again. Alas, a few hoops later he missed a shot. As if returning the favour the game was now being handed back and the lead could be 2-0. Fulford punished him but allowed just one more shot. Bassett hit and won with a triple peel. A fine game.
The third game was another see-sawing battle in which the world champion showed his genius. From being down after an error, he determinedly hit his last shot - one made shorter by Bassett not choosing to pursue a sextuple peel. He hit and unleashed an astounding passage of play to take the game. The gravity of the task ahead as it felt for Bassett must have been enormous. A win in game four would require perfection.
Apart from an opening miss, Bassett was astounding in the fourth - particularly when he hit a 35+ yard shot to stay in the game. He made the most of it and brought home the game with a triple peel. The crowd of 80 enthusiasts there to witness history being made erupted into applause, much as they had been doing much of the game for both players. It was down to sudden death. The final game of the best of five match began after a short break.
On only the third turn of the game, Fulford made his nine hoops with only three balls on the court. This is a difficult manoeuvre that is how the best players would always start if they could. He can and did, again leaving Bassett a long shot to stay in the match. The shot missed by millimetres. Fulford now had only to complete a triple peel to win. And, like the champion he is, he did and in doing so added his first Australian title to his massive collection [correction - I believe Robert won the Aus Open in 1994 and the Aus Men's Singles in 1995, KB]. It was a performance to be proud of, not only was he brilliant in the finals, he broke record after record in his games. A fine accomplishment for any sport, let alone the incredibly difficult game of croquet.
Trevor Bassett, too, would be happy with his achievement. He was within a whisker of defeating the world champion - something very few have done in a best of five. Still, by all accounts it was an exceptional tournament. He'd completed a triple peel in almost every singles game before the final. Clearly he has the form to pursue the number one ranking, had he hit in the last game he said he'd go for a sextuple. Surely it is only a matter of time before he reveals a further element to his prowess and immortalises himself in world croquet. But although he had produced exceptional croquet, it was only just not enough for the world champion.
When the trophies were presented Fulford commented on the welcoming atmosphere at the tournament. "It's always nice to see friends around the world, this has been a very pleasant experience for me. It's a very friendly tournament." And from a player and a spectator at the Victorian Championships, Robert, you are welcome any time.
These are abridged annotations. These should only be used as a guide to understanding the games. The results and these give you a fair idea, but not exactly. The complete annotations require a great deal of concentration. Enjoy these as much as I enjoyed watching them.
1. Y (Robert) supershot.
2. N (Trevor) shoots at Y, misses, ends seven yards from end of B-baulk.
3. R hits N centre ball, sends N to 1 gets poor rush on Y (just clips it), takes off to hoop, short, scatters sending Y a little further into the court.
4. B lines up double, misses.
5. R hits Y. After 6 sets for SXP, lays up in C3 with R about 2 yards out.
6 N shoots, misses (just it seems).
7 Y hits N, finishes with SXP.
1. N supershot
2. R to C2
3. B just misses left.
4. Y hits R, pops B1 sets for SXP.
5. B asks for wiring test, gets lift. Goes to 4-b leaving NSL with Y at peg.
6. R misses Y from C3.
7. B establishes break but misses cut to 5.
8. Y hits and goes to 4-b leaving B in C4, N between 1 and 2, R and Y near C2 with dead rush for R to N.
9. N hits from b-baulk and finishes.
1. Y supershot.
2. N to East 1 yard short of peg high.
3. R misses at N.
4. B at Y, misses.
5. R to 1-b, no POPs, lays up in C3.
6. N at Y, misses.
7. Y starts SXP but sticks in 4 with R on 2-b (1).
8. B hits R but soon misses Y, ending up on East level with 5.
9. Y hits B and finishes.
1. N deep supershot.
2. R two inches out of C2.
3. B misses at R.
4. Y misses at R and B.
5. B to 4-b with Y at 2 and R near 4.
6. R hits N, lays up for SXP after popping N1.
7. N hits R, finishes.
1. Y supershot.
2. N to East 2 yards South of peg-high.
3. R hits N, goes to 4-back with rush for Y on N at R on West 1 yard N from 6-high.
4. B misses R. 5. Y finishes.
Robert Fulford wins the match +26sxp, -17tp, +26qnp, -20tp, +26tp.
Robert Fulford beat Chris Borlase, +26sxp, +9tpo
Ian Bassett beat Blaise Northey, -4, +8, +26tp
Kevin Beard beat Rosemary Graham, +15, +9
Max Donati beat Kenn Boal, +23tp, +26tp
Simon Watkins and Chloe Aberley, -2, +11, +16
Ken Bald beat George Latham, +17, +16
Harley Watts beat Steve Ketelaars +17, +25
Trevor Bassett beat Charlotte Morgan +26tp, +26tp
Robert Fulford beat Ian Bassett, +16tp, +16sxp
Max Donati beat Kevin Beard, -24tp, +17, +25
Ken Bald beat Simon Watkins, +26tp, +26tp
Trevor Bassett beat Harley watts, +17tp, +26tp
Robert Fulford beat Max Donati, +26sxp, +26sxp
Trevor Bassett beat Ken Bald, +26tp, +26tp
Robert beat Trevor Bassett +26sxp, -17tp, +26qnp, -20tp, +26tp