AC Open Championships Report
Days 1 & 2 - Saturday 3 & Sunday 4 July
The Association Croquet Open Championships began with the Open Doubles, this year held in its entirety before the singles began, rather than being intertwined in its latter stages as in previous years. This change divided opinion, since it meant many players had little to do on the third day of the doubles. On the other hand the doubles entry was higher than the singles for the first time in over 20 years, so perhaps it was popular. 15 pairs entered, including all but one of the top 12 UK ranked players at the time of entry, with the missing player being Robert Fulford who did play in the singles.
There were no shocks in the first round - all the seeds not only progressed but did so 2-0 in their best of three matches. However the quarter-finals produced a notable upset, when Phil Eardley and Dominic Nunns defeated heavyweights Mark Avery and Jamie Burch. The semi-finals were played best of five given the easy conditions, but slow play made the manager very grateful that both finished 3-0. In the first, Eardley & Nunns had an excellent chance to level their match against James Death and Samir Patel, but that chance slipped away and with it, the match. The second semi-final featured three world champions, but the pair with two of them, Paddy Chapman and Stephen Mulliner, were defeated by Reg Bamford and the sole commoner, Pete Trimmer.
Day 3 - Monday 5 July
The Open Doubles Champions are Death & Patel, who won the final 3-1. The final was played, as many matches were, as Alternate Stroke Doubles (ASD). This means that instead of each player owning their own ball and playing only that colour, the two players take it in turn to play strokes, regardless of which ball plays. All doubles games (including handicap doubles) may be played ASD if all players agree and it seems to be increasing in popularity in England, seen by many as more of a genuine contest between partnerships. At least a third of games at the Opens were played ASD.
The third game of the final was particularly exciting, as starting from hoop 3, Bamford & Trimmer did an ASD TPO as well as a peel on partner ball, and then pegged two balls off leaving a two ball ending of 1 v 2b. In a fascinating ending, Death eventually ran 1b to the boundary and Patel then hit a critical 30-yard shot at the opposition ball in front of 4b. Shortly afterwards Trimmer missed a 10-yard shot, after which Death & Patel finished with a 4 hoop break to take a 2-1 lead that never looked like being overhauled.
The doubles plate was won by Avery & Burch.
Days 4 & 5 - Tuesday 6 July & Wednesday 7 July
The last two days at Surbiton have been dedicated to the preliminary stages of the Open Singles. Several years ago the Opens switched away from blocks and there is now a Swiss for players to negotiate. In this system, players need to win a certain number of games (this year it is four wins from a maximum of eight games) to qualify for the knockout. Once a player has qualified, or can no longer manage to qualify, they stop playing in the Swiss. This system avoids dead games, which are common in blocks, ensuring every game matters. In addition, games are drawn to ensure that each player faces opposition of similar standards.
The singles quality has been extremely high this year, reflecting the fact that all the top players are playing but somewhat fewer of the -1s and -0.5s than normal. Most of the top players have qualified, but there have been plenty of shocks along the way. Mark Suter might have expected to lose to Bamford and beat Chris O'Byrne, but it was the other way round. Sam Murray qualified early with wins over Death and Burch, while Nigel Polhill is still in contention having delivered TP wins over Trimmer and Jeff Dawson. The most surprising non-qualifier is Nunns, who played so well in the doubles but was unable to maintain that standard for the singles.
There are still three places to be settled in games that began late yesterday evening, as players battled it out in fading light, and to the backdrop of the England-Denmark football match, ensuring a huge crowd (by croquet standards at any rate) that were half-watching the football and half the croquet, with the latter enlivened by the occasional distracting roar as a result of the former. One of those games will see a further shock, as 2019 champion Death takes on Suter, with the winner qualifying and the loser eliminated - a three-ball ending is ongoing following a Death TPO. Elsewhere Joel Taylor and James Hopgood have gone one better (or perhaps one worse) and are fighting out a two-ball ending, while lucky loser Gabrielle Higgins takes on Middlesex teammate Polhill for the final knockout spot. The main knockout will start late morning, once those games are complete, and will culminate with the final on Sunday.
Day 6 - Thursday 8 July
The day started with the last of the Swiss games, which saw Death, Taylor and Polhill securing the final places in the knockout. In Death's case any relief was short-lived, as he was promptly knocked out by Taylor - this was a big shock by any standards given Death was 2019 singles champion, as well as having won the doubles just three days earlier. Taylor's shooting was superb, while Death's play was short of his usual high standards. With the match tied at 1-1, Taylor embarked on a (very) delayed and tense TP to win. He peeled 4b before 3b, and the turn looked in peril when he was only able to peel penult as far as the peg in a straight double ending. However leaving a ball behind he played an excellent rush to rover, peeled a couple of inches through, and despite lacking a side ball managed to cannon peelee out from behind rover to complete the TP and a memorable 2-1 victory.
That was the only real shock. Bamford, Chapman, Fulford and Mulliner all secured the straightforward victories that the rankings suggested, and while two years ago Fisher defeating Trimmer might have been an upset, this year the upset would have been the other way round. Completing the quarter-final line-up are Christian Carter, who defeated Avery without conceding a hoop, and Alain Giraud who overcame Burch in a much tighter match featuring an epic deciding game with lots of excitement but somewhat less precision croquet.
Days 7 & 8 - Friday 9 & Saturday 10 July
We are down to the final two of the Open Singles, and to nobody's great surprise they are Reg Bamford and Robert Fulford, who have each won 11 Opens titles (and incidentally five AC World titles each as well). Between them they have contested 35 Opens finals, and Sunday will be their 11th against each other, Bamford having won six and Fulford four.
There were no great surprises in the quarter or semi-finals, although two matches came very close. Fresh from knocking out Death, Taylor took a 2-0 lead over Fisher in their quarter-final, and had he been able to complete the straight double finish to his QP, or subsequently hit a 13 yard shot, he would have beaten him. However Fisher is nothing if not a fighter, and made a great recovery to win 3-2. The other almost shock was Christian Carter, who took Fulford to a deciding game in their quarter-final. With a TP in front of him to take the match, he played a cannon and unfortunately sent striker's ball off the lawn. You don't get a second chance against Fulford. In the other two quarter-finals, Bamford and Paddy Chapman recorded slightly less precarious 3-1 victories over Alain Giraud and Stephen Mulliner respectively.
In the semi-finals, Fulford played beautifully against Fisher to win 3-0, although Harry could certainly have taken the second game but failed his TP at rover. In the other semi, Bamford won a very dramatic match 3-2 against Chapman. With everything hanging on the deciding game, Chapman was unable to finish his sextuple, while after nine hours' play Bamford did complete his to clinch a place in his 17th final.
Day 9 - Sunday 11 July
It's all over, and huge congratulations to winner Reg Bamford who won 3-1 took his 12th singles title to become the leading Open singles winner of all time, 28 years after his first and 26 years after the first Bamford-Fulford final. Despite many pretenders to the crown, these two still set the standard for AC in the UK. The final featured no fewer than four sextuple peels - both players demonstrated a very high standard of break play, but Fulford's shooting was weaker, which with Bamford in imperious form was too great a handicap for him to overcome.
Jamie Burch won the Plate, and Joel Taylor the consolation Z.
I'd like to finish by thanking the huge team of "elves" at Surbiton - all volunteers, who worked so hard to prepare lawns, set hoops, make and serve food, and operate the bar, for nine consecutive days. The public face of the elves most apparent are George Noble and Chris Osmond, but there are many others. These and many like them round the country are the reason the croquet tournament scene is so enjoyable.