FORMER Stratford coach Natasha Hillyer and her partner Soumeya Anane staged a blistering fightback on the final day of the Aegon Inter-County Tennis Championships to ensure the survival of Warwickshire women’s side in the elite Group 1 at Eastbourne, writes Sally Jones.
Struggling in scorching sun against unbeaten Surrey, the Midlanders needed just one more rubber to avoid relegation but when doubles specialist Anane, who recently won two international doubles tournaments in Europe, exacerbated a knee strain, the pair looked down and out.
Despite being pegged back to set-all by the gritty Surrey thirds, they reasserted themselves in the deciding set and went for their shots brilliantly to clinch it 6-4, to the delight of captain Katie Shaw and Warwickshire’s vocal band of supporters.
The top Warwickshire pairing of Emily Smith and Manisha Foster again battled valiantly, clinching a hard-fought straight sets win over the Surrey second pair but could make little impression on the powerful Surrey firsts, junior international Emily Appleton and Katie Morris.
Edgbaston Priory rackets manager Leyla Ogan produced some fine touch-play, partnering the big-hitting Lilly Mould, 16, the British Junior champion, but the sheer experience and consistency of the well-balanced second and third Surrey pairs proved too much for them.
Anane and Hillyer had both pulled off close victories, partnering less experienced players in earlier matches, but the experience gleaned from their longstanding doubles partnership showed when the crucial match came down to the wire.
Surrey, who needed just a win to take the title, duly inflicted a 5-2 defeat overall and the remaining rubbers were abandoned.
It was Warwickshire’s heroic victories earlier in the week over Kent and Norfolk, however, that paid dividends.
“I’m so proud of how all the girls played this week,” smiled former England international Shaw, who although a month off her 50th birthday, turned out on Day 1 when two players were struggling with injuries.
“We had a real mixture of youth and experience, including two 16-year-olds, Lilly Mould and Tamara Malazonia, plus our wonderfully supportive reserve Holly Reid and our stalwarts Leyla Ogan, Emily Smith, Soumeya Anane, Natasha Hillyer and Alannah Griffin who all gave it 100 per cent and fought back time and again to beat higher-ranked opposition.
“They also backed one another up and encouraged each other in tight matches, which I think often made the difference between winning and losing.
“It’s a long old week but I’m pleased and relieved we managed to stay up – and with a bit of luck and this kind of team spirit, we might well be in the hunt for the title next year.”
By contrast, there was disappointment for Stratford’s male stars player Luke Hammond, 20, and Cameron Malik, 27, as Warwickshire Men in Group 5 at Cambridge failed to clinch the win over Nottinghamshire they needed for the long-awaited promotion to Group 4.
Hammond who had partnered captain Nathan Rooney to a string of battling victories through the week including 8-1 drubbings of Oxfordshire and Staffordshire, found the going tough and the pair were edged out in two tight three-setters by both the top Nottinghamshire pairings.
Warwickshire firsts Mason Recci and Oliver Nolan won their opening match against the Notts thirds but the next five rubbers all went Nottinghamshire’s way, most of them agonisingly close three-setters.
After Notts took a winning 5-1 lead to clinch promotion along with unbeaten Dorset, the final rubbers were abandoned, so Rooney’s young side, must wait until next year to try to climb back up the divisions.
Despite the disappointment, captain Nathan Rooney praised the commitment shown by his young side which included two 17-year-old debutants, Dan Bird and Alex Griffiths, who were called into the team at the last minute after several established players were ruled out by injury.
“It was really tough,” Rooney admitted. “Particularly to have got so close to promotion but just not managing to cross the line and get the job done.
“Everyone gave their all and Luke Hammond did a great job, partnering an old man like me!
“Notts were a good, strong team with slightly more depth than we had, though and virtually every match was a tight one. Our youngsters certainly learned a lot during what is a long, gruelling, though enjoyable, week.”
Day 5 Results: Eastbourne Aegon Inter-County Cup Group 1Women’s Championship
Warwickshire lost 2-5 to Surrey (Warwickshire names first)
Warks 1st pair: Manisha Foster/ Emily Smith lost to Surrey 1st pair Emily Appleton/ Katie Morrison 3-6 1-6
Beat Surrey 2nd pair Laura Slater/Camilla Verden-Anderson 6-2 6-4
Warks 2nd pair Lilly Mould/ Alannah Griffin lost to Surrey 1st pair 2-6 0-6
Lilly Mould/ Leyla Ogan Lost to Surrey 2nd pair 4-6 6-7
Mould/Ogan Lost to Surrey 3rd pair Jodie Lawrence-Taylor/ Alessandra Ruggiero 4-6 4-6
Warks 3rd pair Soumeya Anane / Tamara Malazonia lost to Surrey 1st pair 4-6 2-6
Soumeya Anane/ Natasha Hillyer beat Surrey 2nd pair 6-4 2-6 6-4
Remaining rubbers abandoned
Surrey are Group 1 Inter-County champions.
Warwickshire finished fourth.
Norfolk and Kent relegated to Group 2.
Warwickshire women lost to Essex 4-5
Beat Kent 6-3
Beat Norfolk 6-3
Lost to Hertfordshire 2-7
Lost to Surrey 2-5
Group 5 Men’s Championship at Cambridge
Warwickshire lost 1-5 to Nottinghamshire (Warwickshire names first)
Warks 1st pair: Mason Recci/ Oliver Nolan lost to Nottinghamshire 1st pair Ben McTaggart/ Cameron West 6-4 4-6 4-6
Beat Nottinghamshire 3rd pair Patrick Foley/ Eban Straker-Meads 6-4 6-1
Warks 2nd pair Nathan Rooney/ Luke Hammond lost to Nottinghamshire 1st pair 7-5 4-6 2-6
Lost to Nottinghamshire 2nd pair Jamie Praditngam/ Marcus Walters 2-6 7-6 1-6
Warks 3rd pair Cameron Malik/ Alex Griffiths Lost to Nottinghamshire 2nd pair 0-6 6-4 4-6
Lost to Nottinghamshire 3rd pair 2-6 5-7
(Remaining rubbers abandoned.)
Dorset and Nottinghamshire are promoted to Group 4.
Warwickshire finished third.
Warwickshire beat Oxfordshire 8-1
Lost to Dorset 4-5
Beat Staffordshire 8-1
Beat Hereford and Worcestershire 5-4
Lost to Nottinghamshire 1-5