There were 76 guests in the Member’s Bar at 939 Boylston Street on Wednesday, November 29th. Seeking shelter from the cold day outside and staying warm with various libations.
The four players warming up stairs on court would make it an even 80 for the spectacle about to unfold on the Racquet’s Court at The Tennis & Racquet Club. Alas, the 2023 World Doubles Racquets Championship was about to start.
On court were Tom Billings and Richard Owen, the holding World Doubles Champions and they were to be challenged across two legs by the current World Singles Champion, Ben Cawston and his partner, Michael Bailey as challengers.
The racquet was spun, and it would be the Challengers to serve first with Bailey from the forehand side to the back hand wall receiver in Tom Billings. With an ace, the match was under way. T&R Head Professional Leon Smart was the marker for this match, and it was refereed by former World Champion, Neil Smith who is the Racquets Professional in Boston.
Bailey and Cawston came out of the gate strong and went up to an early lead of 9-4. The Holders got within two points at 7-9 but were unable to put any more points on the board, Owen struggled with finding a length on his serve, and was not quite finding his timing on his ground strokes. Game one to the Challengers.
In the second game Cawston stormed to 8-0 lead, the holders clawed their way back to 8 all, only to manage two more points in the game. Bailey’s incredible defense, and Cawston’s bludgeoning offence kept the holders firmly on their back feet. With the Holders looking decidedly uncomfortable, they would need to produce their best Racquets in order to stay in the match.
The third game of the 1st leg would start as the two before it, top quality play by all four players, and With Cawston and Bailey up 9-7, two unforced errors from Bailey seemed to stall out their effort, Owen was blanked out in the service box, and Billings came in second hand at 7-9, he took the game by the scruff of the neck, winning the next 8 points to take the game 15/9.
With the momentum swinging to the Holders, Owens' serve and ground strokes started to flow, they pulled out to a 10-2 lead, and finished the game 15-5. The Holders starting to play their best Racquets of the day, could the Challengers right the ship, and reestablish their dominance of the first two games?
Game 5 started with an incredible 32 shot rally, punctuated by crushing backhand kill shot from the racket of Cawston. Clearly this match was not close to being over. It was cat and mouse till The Holders were 6/7 down, at which point they pulled away, playing excellent doubles, Owen served to 11, and Billings added two more points, the Challengers were blanked out, and the Holders closed out game five 15/7.
With the Holders on the ascendancy, and the Challengers showing signs of fatigue, could they manage one more push to get the match a game seven? The holders started strongly, and pulled out to 10/4 lead, at which point Bailey took a two-minute timeout for cramping, although not taking all of this allotted time, both Bailey and Cawston came back on court with a renewed sense of purpose, Cawston’s work rate increased considerably, and was again able to flow around the court to hit winners from both flanks. The holders on the other hand having lost their momentum, found themselves 10/11 down, Bailey Cawston made it to the crucial 13, only to see the Holders draw level at 13 All, at this point Cawston calmly requested NO SET, some would say brave, others foolish, either way the call was made, and shortly thereafter the game went to Billings and Owen 15/13.
With the 1st leg in the books the Holders held a 4-2 lead in games and a 13-point lead (77-64).
The general consensus was that the second leg could be a somewhat one-sided affair, with Billings and Owen cruising to the finish line. How wrong they were, the eighty plus supporters in the gallery, and all watching online were treated to a truly amazing spectacle of Racquets, with more drama than a primetime soap opera.
From the first serve all four players came out swinging, looking much more comfortable than the start of the 1st leg, but it was the Challengers that were putting points on the board, Cawston in full flow, was looking formidable, and with Bailey's rock steady defense, it was going to take some outstanding Racquets to derail the Cawston/Bailey Express. Game one to the Challengers,
total games 3-4.
The momentum the Challengers had was carried into game two, and they built a lead of 8-4, but two good runs by Billings saw the Holders take their first lead of the game at 10-8, the Challengers managed just one more point, again Billings closed out the game with a five-point run. 5-3 to the Holders.
Once again, the momentum of the previous game was carried into the next, with the Holders playing very solid doubles, and building a lead of 7-3, it was at this precise moment that the Holders momentum was stopped dead in its tracks, Owen executes a crushing backhand kill shot, only to see Bailey lunge forward, and pick off a sublime half volley that hugged the sidewall and died four feet before the service line. The very next point saw Owen crush a forehand kill shot,
only to see it dispatched with nonchalant ease again. Understandably the Holders were a little rattled at this point and lost the next eight points, they did well to level the game at 11-11, only to see the game slip away 15-11. The Holder’s lead is cut to one game. 5-4.
Billings/Owen got off to a good start, and took a 6-0, at which point Billings played a dangerous shot, and was penalized a point. This seemed to revitalize the Challengers, and with some good serving from Bailey they got back to 5-6, again the holders opened up a lead to go 12-7, at this point of the game all four players were playing incredible Racquets, and the challengers clawed their way to game point, only to be denied, two points from Billings/Owen and they had leveled the game at 14 all, this time set three was called, Billings was dispatched from the box and the holders rattled off the three points needed to take game four. Incredibly the Challengers had levelled the match at 5 games all!
Just to add to the drama of the day, the front and left side wall started to sweat due to the change in outside temperature and the packed gallery of highly excited spectators. The holders got straight back to business, and took a 9-0 lead, at this point the referee took to the court to inspect the court, he deemed it safe to play on, as it was the walls and not the floor that were sweating.
With Bailey clearly not moving as he had been, he was targeted by the Holders, who swept to a comfortable conclusion the game, and turned out to the Championship. The challengers at this point were 15 points behind the Holders, and needed to win one more game to level the game score and so go to a points total, being 15 points down, and a tie going to the holders, it was a mathematical impossibility to win the match, coupled with Baileys physical issues the Challengers conceded the match, and the Holders retained their title!
The somewhat anticlimactic end to the match took little away from the fact that all present had witnessed one of the most exciting World doubles Challenges, played by four players at the tops of their games.
Congratulations to the combatants in what proved to be an epic battle.
-Reported by Neil P. Smith, Racquet’s Professional, The Tennis & Racquet Club of Boston