TEN young Northumbrian gladiators took on the cream of the world’s budding squash talent at the British Junior Open in Sheffield.
Five boys and five girls did well even to break into the most prestigious junior tournament on the planet, with players jetting in from as far afield as Ukraine, Argentina, Malaysia and Canada.
Northumbria’s ‘girls team’ was Aanya Hamilton, Lucy Anderson, Erin Vitty, Laura Neill, Maria Bainbridge – for the boys, Michael Mattimore, Jamie Todd, Alex Roberton, Chris Wiggins and Cai Younger.
With a couple of the leading international Under 19 players already having rubbed shoulders with senior world stars on the professional tour, this was a rare chance in early January for the county’s finest to take on players who might one day be lifting senior titles.
Jesmond’s Maria Bainbridge led the charge for the girls at U19 level, clocking up some early wins on her way to a fantastic 24th place finish.
Maria did not put a foot wrong in her first round win over BYE, trounced Anna Kimberley of Essex (11-6, 11-6, 11-4) then saw off Scotland’s Claire Gadsby 3-1 in Round 3.
Merseyside’s Katrina Burrows proved too strong in Round 4, then Maria was edged out of a five-game thriller against Swiss girl Nadia Pfister – but not before making her opponent literally squeal with frustration after the 63rd winning backhand crosscourt volley kill of the game from our girl.
Gloucestershire’s Kip Quiney won 3-1 in Round 6 but 24th place was still a superb effort from Maria – and the highest place of any county junior in the championships.
A trio of Northern girls had some tough battles in an impressive Girls U13 tournament. Aanya Hamilton (27th), Erin Vitty (29th) and Lucy Anderson (30th) did so well to earn their places in a star-studded field – and fought hard against some of the best young players in the world.
Erin lost to Egyptian Farah Shekata and Warwickshire’s Rosie Kirsch, then was agonisingly close in Round 3 against Hungarian Vanda Laskai – eventually going down 11-8 in the fifth after an excellent display.
It was a familiar opponent in Round 5 – clubmate Lucy Anderson, with Erin finding her form to win 3-0 on the day.
Lucy had taken on some of the very best young players in the country at that stage, in Margot Dow (Middlesex), Darcie Mounter (Cambridge) and Suffolk’s Emma Bartley.
The fast-improving Aanya, meanwhile, found Essex’s Alice Green too strong, along with Valentina Maddalena of Argentina and Hungary’s Vanda Laskai.
It takes a very good player to stop Michael Mattimore these days – and Egypt’s Yousseff Ibrahim certainly lived up to that billing, with a 3-0 win over the Northern starlet in Round 2 of the Boys U15s.
Michael had already seen off Lanchashire’s Carlton Oldham by the same scoreline in the first round, but he faced another tough task at the third stage, with Cumbria’s in-form Dan Harrison just edging home after an epic five-setter.
India’s Dev Vazirani proved too much in Round 4 (3-1) but Michael bounced back to beat the superbly-named Croatian Roko Voncina and then finished with an immaculate performance in a final stage walkover win over Surrey’s Tom Walsh, to finish a very impressive 29th overall.
Tynemouth’s Laura Neill hit top gear to finish 34th in the Girls Under 15s – bouncing back from a 3-0 loss to Canada’s Hannah Blatt, Laura had a bye, then played some lovely squash to see off a tough opponent in Yorkshire’s Gabriella Mawson 3-0 (11-7, 11-6, 11-5).
Further wins over America’s Grace Steelman (3-1) and Freya Lane of Gloucestershire came (3-0) , before Amy Jones (Bucks) proved strong in the final round.
Matching that finish was Alnwick’s fast-improving Chris Wiggins, who lost his first round 3-1 to Hampshire’s Robbie Keefe, before finding his stride to win his next four matches. Wig’s victims were Jean Gai of France (3-2 – and from two games down), Spaniard Alejandro Sotelo (3-0), Hampshire’s Cameron Ward (3-1) and Lancashire’s Isaac Rawcliffe (3-1).
Englishman Charlie Lee proved too strong in the last match, but Chris’s 34th finish in a very strong 64-man field, was an impressive achievement.
Hot on his heels was Tynemouth’s Jamie Todd, who was handed a really tough draw in Round 1 – Egypt’s Saad El Din Ihaab.
The Egyptian’s huge variety of shots helped him to a 3-0 win, but Jamie hit back with a nail-biter win in the next stage – the sort of five-setter tussle he relishes.
Ukranian giant Dmytro Pogrebniak was the opposition, and this one went all the way, with three of the five games going 13-11 one way or the other, before Jamie’s superior fitness kicked in.
Yorkshire’s Stuart MacGregor edged a close 3-1 in Round 3, but Jamie finished strongly with three successive wins – Canadian duo David Mill and Brock Janzer going down 3-2 and 3-0 respectively, and American Gabriel Morgan also losing 3-0 to the Northumbrian, who ended up a very creditable 41st place.
Alex Robertson has been in terrific form of late, and despite suffering from a bug, he produced some excellent squash to win three of his six games on his way to a 50th place finish in the Boys Under 17s.
His first two opponents – Egypt’s Youssef Akram and Switzerland’s Yanick Buric – proved too strong, although the Northern shotmaker did pick up a game in the latter match.
Alex then hit his strike with consecutive and convincing 3-0 wins against Ireland’s Kelly Morgan (11-7, 11-1, 11-3), Norwegian Filip Pinto (11-4, 11-6, 11-3) and seeded Argentine Juan Barreyro (11-7, 11-8, 11-8).
James Connor lay in wait in the final round – a real shootout this, between two of the more attacking junior players on the circuit. Alex had his share of winners, but tired in the fourth as he lost a close 3-1 to the Merseysider.
Cai Younger’s big challenge was to make the Boys Under 19 competition and, having done so, to make the top 64 monrad rather than the secondary 16-man tournament in a bumper entry of 80 players. It was mission accomplished after a 3-1 win over Merseyside’s Adam Pritchard in the qualifying round – giving him six more games against some of the best male juniors in the world.
Malaysian Darren Chan, Zimbabwean Blessing Muhwati and Englishmen Ben Coates and Josh Turmel all proved too strong for the Northern starlet. But Cai, who couldn’t quite find his customary speed and stamina, did clock up an impressive 3-1 win over close Yorkshire rival Nathan Kaiser in Round 5, and was edged out 12-10 in the fifth against Romanian Vasile Hapun in Round 6.
The Northumbrian had run out of legs by this stage, but a 62nd-placed finish out of 80 was a decent effort from a player not quite at the top of his game.