Rachel Gee retained the GC English National Singles Championship - and with it, the Ascot Cup - and in doing so, achieved two landmark feats: she became the first person since Reg Bamford in 2009 to win the tournament without dropping a game and is also the first name to appear on the trophy for two consecutive years since 1997 - both of which are firsts under the current structure.
Southport & Birkdale Croquet Club were most welcoming and put lots of effort into the facilities and conditions for the Ascot Cup in a time of year which has the potential to have less than desirable weather. Everyone was enjoying one of the warmest, calmest and driest weekends since the beginning of August. Among the 16 players, were three previous winners - including the defending champion - and James Death as the top four seeds (all members at Nottingham), as well as many regulars at top level GC events. It was difficult to predict if there would be another new name on the trophy for the sixth year in a row, and/or whether it would again call Nottingham its home.
The 16 competitors played best-of-three 13-point games in four blocks of four on Saturday to determine the top two from each who would progress to the knockout. Blocks A, B and C finished with players on 3, 2, 1 and 0 wins, block B going to seeding with all matches being won 2-0 bar Tom Weston taking game 2 from Tim King. Rachel Gee was the only player to not drop a game in the blocks. Block D also went to seeding, although with three players on two wins, and Roger Goldring just missed out to Lionel Tibble, having lost their match which concluded at 1845 after everyone else had left.
The top two seeds in block C also progressed to the knockout, although in the match between them, Ian Burridge was 2-5 down in game three against Paul Rigge (and was a little bit annoyed while contesting hoop 8 when a positional shot from the south boundary hilled into the back of the wire) but came back to win 7-5. The standout performance of the Saturday was the reason block A didn't go to seeding, as Jack Good won his first two matches, and was guaranteed to be in the knockout of his first Ascot Cup before even playing James Death, who was also on two wins.
The knockout consisted of three rounds of best-of-three matches. The rankings were updated with the block games on Saturday evening and the knockout was drawn using Modified Grade-Based Seeding, with the block winners seeded 1-4 and second in each block 5-8, avoiding first round block clashes.
Ian Burridge looked to have the hardest draw in the form of Lionel Tibble, but Burridge dished up in super-quick time, winning 7-0, 7-3 - Lionel saying he was "murdered" and "Poirot wouldn't have had much work to do". James Death also didn't waste much time in beating Tim King 7-4, 7-3. Rachel Gee beat Jack Good 7-3, 7-5 to set up yet another match against Burridge. It is not often that, although in this case the top four seeds, all the semi-finalists are from the same club, but that was now down to the match between Richard Bilton and Paul Rigge. Bilton didn't start the match by hitting the ball straight but managed to get to hoop 13 in the first game after Paul ran 11 by a foot; 3 decisive positional outcomes at the final hoop however allowed Paul to win the game. Bilton then raised his game and after leading both the second and third games 6-2, was able to take the match 6-7, 7-3, 7-5 after four hours of play, and ensure the trophy was won by a Nottingham member.
On paper, the semi-final between Ian Burridge and Rachel Gee was the hardest to call, their previous games 16-15 to Burridge, who had now reached the semi-final of all three Triple Crown events this year, while Gee had won two of the three (out of eight) remaining qualifying tournaments for this event. There was never much between them in this match either, Burridge ran hoop 10 to level at 5-5 in game one and looked to have the advantage as Gee's next ball was hampered on the wire of 12, although he wasn't able to capitalise and Gee regained the lead. Burridge levelled again and had a jump at hoop 13, but clipped Gee's ball, allowing her to run it and take the first game. After another close game, Gee kept her winning streak going with a 7-6, 7-5 victory.
James Death appeared to be the favourite against Richard Bilton, as his grade was over 100 points ahead, although he only led their previous games 6-5 and Bilton was 3 from 4 this year. Neither player was at their best as Death shot at hoop 2 and 3 in game one and jawsed both, before Bilton 'picked up the pieces' and immediately jumped both. Death then rattled through hoop 4 before running hoops 5 and 6 clean to take a 4-2 lead. Bilton wasn't going away and good shots to run hoops 7 and 9, and Death peeling him through hoop 10, enabled him to level at 5-5. Bilton then took the lead but only ran hoop 11 by 2'' and after both balls missed Death', he played for the rush and ran hoop 12. Bilton played to hoop 13 and Death was unlucky that his rush got a bad contact and neither ball made it in front of 13, Bilton played an near identical shot to hoop 13 as against Paul in which the ball hit the back of the hoop, although Death' next shot left the first ball where it was and Bilton ran the hoop to win the first game. The second game was just as close, but Bilton was never behind, remained the more consistent of the two, and won the match 7-6, 7-4.
This meant that not only would there not be a new name on the trophy this year, but the final was between the previous two champions. Bilton's form, while respectable in his last four games, was quite varied during the event, whereas Gee was solid throughout. Gee therefore appeared to be the favourite, as well as leading their previous games 13-9 and winning the last 6 in a row, although Bilton was 8 from 10 in 2018 - he would need to find form of a similar level as the time he won to do so again. Coincidentally, neither player had played on the final lawn yet, but as the final started at 1630, decided not to have a warm up.
The first game started with a battle at hoop 1, which could possibly allow the players to settle. After failed attempts from both players, Gee ran it and followed it with a very good clearance - clearly showing her continuance of form - which enabled her to take a 2-0 lead. After some clearance outcomes which slightly favoured Bilton, he ran hoop 3 to the south boundary. At hoop 4, a positional shot from Gee left a double and Bilton ran the hoop from 12 yards to level at 2-2 with his other ball in front of hoop 5, albeit deep and angled. Gee made a few uncharacteristic positional errors at hoop 5, but a missed clearance from Bilton enabled her to regain the lead. An unfortunate characteristic of the lawn left Bilton behind the peg on the way towards hoop 6, Gee then cleared to finish in front of 7 and Bilton missed the clearance, which allowed Gee to run hoops 6 and 7 in successive strokes and take a 5-2 lead. A flick attempt, an in-off and a jump from Bilton not succeeding led to Gee winning the first game 7-3.
They say 'the better you are playing, the more luck you have' - this was certainly the case in game 2, although with a good and bad run. As in game 1, Gee lead 2-0, and Bilton failing some angled hoops at 1 and 3 led to Gee running hoop 3 and finishing in the jaws of hoop 4 to be able to take a 4-0 lead. Gee then rushed Bilton's first approach to hoop 5 into the jaws and removed the possibility of winning 7-0. A fine clearance from Gee at hoop 7 left her 10 yards south and the return positional shot hilled and ran the hoop backwards by ½'', although Bilton was able to move it also from behind the hoop. After Bilton blocked Gee's hoop shot, she then peeled him for 5-2. Bilton was in a position to clear Gee and flick towards hoop 9 but the contact was too central, Gee missed the return clearance anyway and Bilton scored the point. Some more consistent clearing from Gee, as well as a helpful run of the balls, and she was able to take a well-deserved victory by 7-3, 7-3.
The Plate consisted of two blocks of four (also based on the updated grades) with a knockout and playoffs. Jane Tewson stepped in after one of the players withdrew after the main blocks and played well to beat Ryan Cabble 7-4 and Callum Johnson 7-5 and come second in her block behind Callum, who had superior net hoops courtesy of him only losing 2 hoops in his other two games. Also, in the other block, Roger Goldring came in second behind David Widdison despite winning their game. In the knockout, Roger beat Callum 10-8 and David beat Jane 10-5, followed by Roger to win the plate 10-7. In the shield, Lionel Tibble overcame Jack Good 10-7 and Tim King snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to beat Paul Rigge 10-9, and went on to beat Lionel 7-4, 7-6 for 5th place. Paul beat Jack 7-5.
All results are available on Croquet Scores.