On Saturday 22nd February the RAC club on Pall Mall, informally renowned as “the home of squash”, hosted the annual Oxford vs. Cambridge Varsity squash fixture.
The first men’s varsity match was held in 1925 and 2014 marked the 83rd contest, making this one of the sport’s oldest and most celebrated f i xtures. Both the men’s and women’s sides came into this year’s Varsity looking to overturn defeats, aided by healthy additions to the teams.
In the reserve fixture Lauren Crichton stepped up her performance to win the string in four games. Alysia Garmulewicz entered her first Varsity at number five but found herself down 2-0, frustrated by her opponent’s serve. Garmulewicz fought back to a 3-2 victory and give Oxford a 1-0 lead. Fresher Anna Gibson (Exeter) lost out in the fourth string match, battling both a crafty opponent and injury, to tie the fixture at 1-1.
Playing at third string, last year’s Oxford captain Mabel Li (Queen’s) faced Kristen MacAskill. Li took a quick fi rst game, and whilst her opponent fought back in the second, Li’s length game and patience was rewarded with a straight sets victory to put Oxford 2-1 ahead. New captain Emily Peach (Magdalen) faced Laura Mullarkey of Cambridge in the second string. The first game could have gone either way as both players found it difficult to adjust to the court conditions. Peach gained more control in the second and third games to secure a comprehensive win, as well as the match for Oxford. The addition of Canadian junior international Laura Gemmell (St Cross) proved decisive in strengthening the squad. The Harvard graduate proved far too strong for her Cambridge counterpart, Tab captain Ali Hemingway, in the fi rst string, which saw her win less than four points. Their hard work paid dividends and the Oxford team turned the tables from their 5-0 loss in 2013 to win the match 4-1 and secure victory for the seventh time in eight years.
The men’s varsity match began at 4pm with fresher Tom Paine (Oriel) making his debut in the reserve string against George Johnson. Paine’s patience frustrated his hard-hitting opponent, and after a tight first game, Paine took more control, taking the second and third games in convincing fashion.
Last year’s reserve Andrew Lindsay (Jesus) made the step up to gain his first Blue in a fifth string match against experienced Harvard graduate Charles Gertler. The Cambridge player took a tense first game. Lindsay gained composure and confidence to pull off impressive tactical and technical play to level the string at 1-1. Gertler upped the pace after the break and Lindsay failed to sustain his momentum. Gertler took the third and fourth games amid some extremely tight rallies and referee warnings of crowd behaviour in a match that took over an hour and gave Cambridge a 1-0 lead.
Also gaining his first Blue at number four was former Indian junior Devkaran Bhatty (Wolfson). Bhatty got off to a blistering start, winning the fi rst game and taking a 5-0 lead in the second. The warm and humid RAC courts led to severe cramping in the Oxford player’s legs, and his tireless opponent Matthew Lees took full advantage and the third and fourth. This meant that the fifth set was the decider and it seemed that it could only go one way. Bhatty fought his way back into the match to get to 7-7 but the fi nal set ultimately went to the Cambridge player. Nonetheless, the incredibly close string led to both Bhatty and Lees being awarded the man of the match awards for their universities.
Alexander Roberts (St John’s) was next on court to against Cambridge’s Henry Pelham in the third string. A bloody nose forced an interruption, and, although Roberts returned to the court, he could not find his feet in the fi rst game, losing 9-1. The second and third games proved much closer, but Roberts was unable to prevent his Cambridge counterpart taking his victory.
Oxford captain, Owen Riddall, faced new Cambridge graduate Alec Greaves-Tunnell, highly regarded on the American squash circuit in the second string match. Riddall and GreavesTunnell both played an aggressive hunting game which seemed to favour the Cambridge player. Despite a tactical re-adjustment, Riddall couldn’t quite nail the comeback.
The men’s first string featured a match that has become legend in recent years. Oxford’s Nelson Fung gained his seventh Blue, Scotland international Harry Leitch his tenth. Fung showed excellent stroke play but failed to convert game balls, losing 10-8 in the tie-break. An eventual loss led to a fi nal 5-0 victory for Cambridge.
Oxford left noting that this was the strongest Cambridge men’s team in several years– and as such the Oxford side did far better than the one-sided scoreline reflected. The Blues were justly proud of the success of the women’s team though.