They say Santa isn’t real. That he’s simply an oft-told, easy-to-grasp explanation for the gift-giving of Christmas day. Simpler than the truth maybe.
“Mummy, why do we have presents on Christmas day?”
“It’s the annual opportunity for commercial giants to rinse our consumerist values for profit dear.”
But emerging from these perfidious seeds are some very real emotional shoots. That mystical chemical cacophony experienced in the lead up to Christmas that clings to us long after the fictitious façade falls away. The feelings in the weeks prior to Squash Varsity are the same really, except that our Santa is real, his name is Gustav; and the only children in danger of getting coal are in dark blue, and go to Ox***d.
The day has finally arrived, and all hands are on deck. After an emphatically successful day for the Women’s Blues, it will soon be time for the Men’s Blues to show us what they’re about. And what a tough act to follow! As if the pressure of playing in this spectacular setting isn’t enough, not only did the Women win 5-0 but they did so with an absolute class and vision indicative of careful preparation. Anything less than pure quality now simply will not do.
But if anyone can, it’s this group of Cambridge athletes. Fixtures this season so far have been downright clinical and with two strong additions to augment an already varsity-winning squad you might be looking at the strongest Men’s Blues team since Ned Stark was still roaming the North. Too much confidence though can lead to complacency, a tale as old as competitive sport. So, while they’ve certainly brought the chops, it remains to be seen if they’ve got the appetite to match.
Gupta has just walked on court and begun his warmup as the umpire begins announcements. The squash-train is about to leave the station, and I for one am severely excited. ‘Gupta to serve, love all’, and we’re off.
#6 Anant Gupta vs Trajan Halvorsen
Making his debut appearance at Squash Varsity is Anant Gupta. He’s taken no time at all to cement himself as a foundation of calm, controlled squash, and I’ve no doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of him over the coming years. For now, he’s showing Oxford’s Halvorsen that hard hitting will only get you so far. Pounding forehands are smartly lifted to the back of the court to great effect. Before long, Gupta’s 8-4 up with the serve in hand. A bold dropshot from Oxford hits the tin and while still a way off, the first steps to winning this fixture fall into place. 9-4. 1/0
The second game is, luckily for Cambridge, quite like the first. Powerful strikes down the backhand define the first stage of the game, but not one to be intimidated all are carefully countered. He’s going to have to come up with something new here or Gupta will continue picking him off. A brief wobble in the middlegame and the momentum is clawed back after a particularly dynamic rally. 7-4. He just needs to hold his nerve. But not one to disappoint he’s played a lovely trickle boast, wrongfooting Oxford, and taken the second game. 9-4. 2/0
The third game is more even. Clearly Halvorsen has, eventually, learnt his lesson. Perhaps he’s realised that this is make or break. In any case, playing smarter he seems to be holding pace with the now calmly confident Gupta. All the way to game ball they are neck and neck. A gorgeous boast from Halvorsen looks like it’s going to win the game but Gupta, breaking into the splits, manages to slip the racket underneath the ball and flick it high and wide. It’s not enough to get past the span of Halvorsen, who kills the ball low and hard. 10-9. 2/1
The fourth sees an exhausted Halvorsen try to repeat his third game performance but with three tough games already under his belt, he’s puffing hard. An unfortunate consequence of building the squash courts next to the pool is that you choose to either have a very dry pool or by the end of a game are swimming in sweat on the squash courts. This is your classic case B. Gupta comfortably takes the 4th game and match! 9-6. 3/1.
#5 Isaac Milford vs Samuel Greenrod
Milford is somewhat of a CUSRC veteran at this point, with two varsities under his belt (albeit one in Covid). Under his keen eye CUSRC has undergone systemic restructuring and is now the formidable organisation you see before you. After a flurry of activity, he’s gone 7-1 up against Greenrod, who’s struggling to contend with that formidable forehand. This might be a swift second match. But no, after a complete change in tide, Greenrod has begun to claw back the initiative taking a clean 5 points in a row. Perhaps the initial lacklustre response has caused an upset in Milford’s rhythm, and he seems to be overthinking things. The English format makes momentum crucial; he needs to relax. Not one to disappoint though, he’s taken the first game 9-5. 1/0
Already this second game is much more evenly matched, some smart between-game chat for oxford perhaps. Rallies are decisive. Points are sharp. Milford’s hard hitting to the back of the court is matched punch for punch by Greenrod, who now looks poised and ready to fight back. And fighting back he is. The ball is clapped cross court by Milford but is swiftly sent back with interest. A powerful kill down the line finishes the rally. Slowly but surely, Milford seems to be getting ahead. It’s clear that while Greenrod is holding up, Milford is the more natural player at this pace and seems to be the more relaxed of the two out there. With a scary determination, Milford carves out more of a lead before taking the second with some classy length work. 9-6. 2/0
Out from left field the third game begins with greedy Greenrod taking 5 points. I can only imagine what has knocked Milford off kilter. Some bad essay feedback perhaps. The Cambridge crowd is getting nervous. Smash! In an epic display of glassy feedback, someone in the audience manages to drop their pint into the court. A group of parents above the now pile of fractured glass look around in gentle confusion, pulling off a bewilderment that has clearly be honed over many years. This author sympathizes. After a brief pause to clear up the mess players go back on court. It’s broken Milford out his glazy stupor, and he goes on to deny his opponent even a game in consolation. Fate, or God is smiling. 9-5. 3/0
#4 Matthew Wong vs Kieran Tan
Wong vs Tan has history. Since the age of 14 these two top talents have been taking each other on in friendly rivalry. Today though, the stakes are very real. I would like to report that the normally smiley Wong has decided that with so much on the line it’s worth putting on a steely visage just for the day. I would be lying though; he’s just given me a smile. These players must know each other’s games so well by now that it’s quite hard to judge decision making objectively. Already Wong seems to be unusually under pressure. Really high-caliber stuff though. Fantastic length at this level is a given, and shots go precisely where they are intended. Watching them it is almost like a well-choreographed dance, with powerful flowing movements to all four corners of the court. Wong can start slow though, and Tan is using that to maximum effect, and has taken a sizable lead in the first. Wong does start to switch on but it’s not enough to stem the tide and Tan takes the first. 9-10. 0/1
Wong’s just getting started though. With the quiet self-confidence of a player who’s been here many times before Wong settles back into the second game with a conscious rhythm. He takes the already high level and amps it up, superbly manipulating the rallies and controlling Tan. Before long he’s equaled. 9-4. 1/1
Without missing a beat, he continues the third game where he left off the second. Wong has this ability to dominate players quite unlike any other I’ve seen and Tan, presumably used to it after all these years is really fighting to stave off the assault. But when Wong gets like this, there is little less than divine intervention or a good smoothie that can stop him. Before long he’s taken the game. 9-2. 2/1
By the fourth game the writing is on the wall and Wong, with all his experience, does not let up in the slightest. He’s not going to give an inch until victory is firmly in hand. Tan probably knows as much. 9-0. 3/1
#3 Alexander Cope vs James McCouat
Cope’s cat-like ease of movement and deceptive swing makes him an infuriating opponent to face. At 2-0 down though Oxford needs to win this one if they stand a chance of victory. While there is little doubting Cope’s shot making, it is likely that in this matchup McCouat has the edge fitness-wise. Let’s hope that Cope can dispatch him before fitness comes to the fore. It’s a strong start from Cope, who comes storming out of the gates to take an early lead. Those Shabana-like last minute holds in the front of the court are causing problems for McCouat, who can’t seem to get a foot in the door. Cope is walking all over him, but at what cost? The rallies are long and physical, and all those thudding forehands must be energy-sapping in the conditions. Sprinting for the win Cope takes the first game in under 15 minutes. 9-2. 1/0
After a break in between games, play resumes. While still producing silk from his racket, Cope is retrieving less. McCouat is doing well out there to stay afloat though and is producing some wonderful drop shots. The fact this is 3rd seed is simply ridiculous and is a testament to the level of squash on display this varsity. By the midgame players are equal and going into a grueling endgame it could go either way. Cope shows grit though and squeezes through. 10-8. 2/0
Cope looks like he decides to take the next two games to exhaust McCouat as much as possible while catching his breath, ensuring the best chance of taking the win in the fifth. The games are short. 1-9. 2/1. 1-9. 2/2
With real grit and determination Cope begins a final duel in game five. Clearly his strategy has worked, and his play has returned to its game one fizziness. McCouat, off the back of two games certainly has the momentum with him, but he may never have faced as tricky an opponent as this. It’s tight, Cope takes an early lead but is overtaken in the midgame in a mighty rally which McCouat takes with a ripping boast. In the end, after a fine performance from both players McCouat is Victorious. 6-9. 2/3. Hope for Oxford, if only a sliver.
#2 Benjamin Adams vs Eliot Heywood
“Intensity incarnate” says one onlooker, sipping at their pint. They’re not wrong. Adams plays with a zealous passion that is hard to sum up in words. One imagines he sleeps with his racket next to him, always ready for the next session. An inspiring sportsman and captain he’s clearly buzzing to begin. And start he does against the incredibly skilled Heywood. It’s as if the ball is rocket-fuelled as it zips from corner to corner! The pace is such that supports are in danger of spraining their necks. After a tight opening, in which players trade points, Adams feathers a drop shot into the nick. It’s a shift of momentum in favour of Cambridge that Adams maintains control until the end of the game. 9-5. 1/0
You can see from Adams’ keenness that having tasted blood; he yearns for more. He goes in for the kill, and it’s a bloodbath. His level of fitness ensures nothing slips through the cracks. Unless Heyworth can beat his shot making, he’s getting nada on the board. It’s already 5-0 and Adams shows no sign of stopping. With some particularly nice work down the backhand, he scores the winner. Anyone order bagels? There’s some going on court 2. 9-0. 2/0
The third showed every sign of being another one-sided affair, so it is to the credit of Heywood and the Oxford team that it was a much closer affair. They are a terribly tricky lot. Some awesome exchanges at the front of the court along with some brilliant retrievals from both. For a moment it looks like Oxford could begin to mount a comeback campaign, but this is swiftly nipped in the bud by Adams, who blazes through Heywood in the tail-end of the game to win the Varsity Squash Match for the second time in two years. Not bad cap’n. The Cambridge crowd erupts in joy! It’s a special moment. 9-7. 3/0
#1 Gustav Runnersjo vs Ben Harrison
Playing for bragging rights is key piece of the puzzle Gustav ‘Goose’ Runnersjo. Put simply, he’s just very, very good at squash. I wish I could paint a more vivid picture for you reader but I’m struggling. He walks on court, walks around a bit, and walks off court, normally with a compelling win under his belt. If there exists a dragon scroll of squash, he’s certainly found it. With the highly pumped-up Cambridge crowd looking down in excitable awe, Runnersjo begins to deliver a masterclass in squash. Pace is controlled to suit the moment, taking time away from his opponent when he can and giving himself more time when under pressure. His length and line are clean, consistent, and concise. His drop shots, used after suitably pushing his opponent far into the wrong corner, stay short and tight, stripping away the likelihood of any front court trickery. To the chant of “Goooose”, he takes the first game without too much drama. 9-1. 1/0
The second game Runnersjo takes at a more leisurely pace. If I didn’t know better, I would say he doesn’t want it to be over too quickly. There is a certain nonchalance in his movements, more so than normal. In any case, there’s a reason Harrison is first seed, he’s also very good. You can’t lower your guard against a player like that. Harrison takes the second 3-9. 1/1
The third and Runnersjo reengages Goose-mode, and from his racket begins to flow gold. There’s not much Harrison can do but watch as his opponent enchants the ball through rally after rally showing immense mastery of the game. The crowd struggle to keep their voices down even while the ref calls for quiet. The atmosphere is immense. Goose drops the ball in tight and collects on the loose return. 9-3. 2/1
From point one it’s clear that the Goose is still loose. Playing with a ruthless grace Runnersjo maintains a dominant position against a frustrated Harrison throughout, showcasing his skill to the now rapturous Cambridge crowd. To ceiling-shattering cheers Runnersjo crosses the finish-line, bringing home the day in style. 9-3. 3/1
6. Ella Jennings v Nadia Stapenell: 4-9, 3-9, 9-1, 8-10
Ella Jennings, playing in her first ever Varsity match, graced the courts first. Her drives were powerful and vicious. But Stapenell’s speed allowed her to capitalise on a few loose shots by Jennings, and left Jennings 0-2 down in games. Jennings is no stranger to long matches, with almost every single one of her ladies league matches going to 5 games. The score may have been against her, but Jennings was “cool as a cucumber”. Her extra yard of pace as she moved around the court, and the narrower and narrower gaps she was placing between the ball and the wall were too much for Stapenell. There was little the O*ford player could do as she succumbed to a 9-1 loss in the third. Jennings barely broke a sweat. The fourth game was an absolute battle. The score was swinging back and forth between the players. Jennings, having gone 6-8 down, put on a stellar performance with beautiful drop shots to save match points and return to 8-8. Unfortunately, Jennings’ gutsy showcase was not enough. Stapenell edged the win in the fourth game, 8-10.
5. Hannah Taylor v. Natalie Shah: 4-9, 9-2, 7-9, 9-3, 9-4
Hannah Taylor stepped up from reserve at last year’s Varsity and showed she deserved her spot in the line-up by winning the toughest match of the day. Some early nerves on both sides resulted in a back and forth in the first two games of 4-9 and 9-2. Taylor refocused and fought hard in the third, but after losing 7-9, she found herself 1-2 down in games. The pressure was mounting. With the crowd resoundingly behind Taylor, she retook the courts with astonishing determination. Attending all the Friday fitness sessions paid off, and Taylor, in a true display of stamina, took her opponent to five games. Her renewed vigour and precision outclassed her opponent, who was left scrambling to retrieve Taylor’s drives and pinpoint drops. Taylor made it look easy, winning the games 9-3, 9-4. Not only did Taylor win the first match for Cambridge, but she also broke O*ford’s spirit, and inspired her teammates earning her the Player of the Match award.
4. Juliana Ganendra v Mei Whattam: 9-6, 9-1, 9-2
The matchup of captains saw O*ford’s Whattam take on our very own Ganendra at the fourth seed. By contrast to Klein’s humble campaign, Ganendra had brought out her entire family and friends to support in rambunctious style. The game started tensely as both players looked to find their groove and establish control of the T. Not only did Ganendra have the much larger set of fans but her game was looking superior as she had Whattam running all over. Though the points seemed to be breaking roughly evenly, Ganendra was winning the war of attrition. Game 1 was close, but the result that seemed likely throughout came eventually: Ganendra went 1-0 up with a 9-6 victory. From then on, the victory was secured. Ganendra’s unfazed composure, silky movement and excellent shot selection overcame O*ford without making it look difficult. Ganendra took the second and third games quickly 9-1, 9-2. Finishing just seconds after Klein, the captain secured the Cambridge ladies’ victory. She basked in the adulation of the fans - “That’s my captain!” ringing out all around.
3. Pierson Klein v. Grace Beglan: 9-4, 9-4, 9-0
Pierson Klein in her first and only Varsity match took to the court and quickly delivered another win to Cambridge. Although hailing from Hotlanta, Klein took a minute to adjust her game to the sweltering courts, but soon she found her rhythm. Her laser sharp drop shots were precise and purposeful. Klein won the first two games 9-4, 9-4. Beglan was visibly rattled. Was it the heat? Was it Klein’s powerful drives? Was it Klein’s crazy, crazy, crazy stories? We’ll never know. But whatever it was, it was effective. After a quick break, Klein returned with heightened focus and speedily closed out the match. Her precision left her O*ford opponent helpless. Beglan was not even given the opportunity to serve, let alone win a point. Klein secured a 9-0 win. Despite her American roots, Klein carried out a quiet campaign to victory under English scoring.
2. Hannah Blythe v Aria Appoo: 9-3, 9-0, 9-0
Blythe took to the court for her final Varsity match. A few balls were tinned and a few loose shots were pounced on, but soon the ball got hotter and the players started really getting going. Like in so many other matches that day, the players started to settle into the long, entertaining and excruciating rallies that are so inevitable at this high level on such warm courts. Blythe edged ahead in the first game 9-3. After a very welcome break and having been enlightened by the support and advice of her brother, Blythe returned with ferocity. Appoo came out revitalised, with extra enthusiasm and pace around the court, but it wasn’t enough. Blythe left no mercy and closed out the match 9-0 9-0. A perfect way to end her excellent Varsity record.
1. Ellie White v. Ruby Wood: 9-0, 9-0, 9-0
Last on court, Ellie White proved why she is number one with a stunning exhibition of skill. White overpowered her opponent from the start, playing a relentless and practically flawless match. Her opponent, still traumatised, from the thrashing of last year, was visibly unsettled and left helpless to White’s precision. But White showed no mercy. Unimpressed with dropping one point at last year’s Varsity, she served up an unprecedented triple bagel. It was pure class. As O*ford politely clapped the end of Whites match, their smiles hid their fears. Their nightmares will be haunted by the thought of facing White and her excellent squash for another three years. White secured a definitive 5-0 light blue victory. Not only did she command the court with unrivalled success but also the Cambridge University Squash Racquets Club as its first female President.
Benj Chesser was first up at Number 6 - a veteran of 2nd Team Varsity matches but a newbie on the big stage. Playing someone twenty years his senior, he was hoping for a long and tiring battle. After his opponent won a scrappy first game, Chesser began to adjust to his opponent's vast range of drop shots. Sprinting around the court like a slightly disoriented gazelle, Chesser took early leads in the next two games - but was unfortunately unable to get over the line in either. Shaking hands at the end of the third set, his opponent informed him he'd been suffering from cramp in his calf the last half an hour... talk about kicking a man when he's down. Oxford 3/0.
First of the top five to take to the court, and first Robinson College member ever to earn a squash Blue, was natural athlete Max Fryer. His high-paced, hard-hitting style was matched by his young opponent. Determination from Fryer saw him wrestle back momentum, taking the first game 10-8. Having found the perfect balance between tactical analysis and pure intuition, Fryer played one of the best matches of his life to dominate. The relentlessness wore down Fryer's opponent, who by the end of the match could barely stand - reminiscent of Fryer at the CUSRC initiation. Fryer eventually took the match in a crucial 3/0 win.
At number 4, a fellow Robinson college member Keshav Sivakumar came up against a very experienced and skilled rival. This was a real contrast in styles. Having recently recovered from a strained jaw, Keshav looked good physically and came out of the blocks swinging. Keshav's hard, low drives were countered by deceptive boasts and floaty lobs. In a continuous tussle for the middle of the court, Keshav took the first game, but soon found himself on the back foot as his opponent stood strong across the middle. After a long battle, Keshav was defeated 3/1.
Isaac Milford played a steady and controlling style of squash in the third string match. His opponent, an experienced and clever player, played his first Varsity in dark blue when Milford was just 10 years old. Milford's youthful energy piled pressure on the veteran. Consistent length, combined with well-timed drops picked up point after point for the light blue. The first two games passed swiftly with Cambridge dropping just 5 points. Inspired by the dominating performance of Cambridge Women just hours before, Milford went for the kill in the final game. Increasing the pace with swift volleys and gut-wrenching drops, he took out his apron and chef's hat; there was yet another bagel on the menu. All class, Milford closed out the match 3/0. Cambridge regained the lead and were now just one win away from victory.
Matthew Wong's match was the definition of 'percentage squash', a beautiful display of consistency and patience from both players. After losing the first, Wong, the Singapore national champion, bounced back brilliantly. With consistently tight and deep length, he constructed rallies perfectly, piling pressure on his opponent before unleashing precise winners. He took the second in a tight 9-7. The third game was a brutal one. Wong's opponent further extended the length of the rallies battling hard to keep the ball in play, while the light blue attempted to expose weaknesses by increasing the pace. At 8-8, both players were breathing heavily. With the heat of the RAC's courts clearly taking its toll, Wong's opponent prevailed 10-8. In the fourth, Wong struggled to recover from the intensity of the preceding games. Showing his skill, he maintained pressure on his opponent with his precise shots but in the end the English scoring system left the scoreboard a poor representation of his efforts. He went down swinging - Oxford 3/1.
Benjamin Adams took to the court in the deciding match. It all came down to this. The nerves were building around the venue. This was the culmination of many things - not just the long day of hard-fought squash, but also the many months of developing team culture and the many years of consistent training. This was payday.
Having hit his 160 grams of daily protein intake for three months consecutively, the Adams machine was primed and ready to go. He hit his marks early on. Tight, dying length was followed up by vicious kills and delicate volley drops. Asserting his dominance, he took the first game after 28 minutes of gruelling squash. His opponent eased into the match, though, and came back strong, taking the next two games, and a 4-0 lead in the fourth. Just when Adams looked down and out, the passion of the Cambridge supporters revived his energy reserves, and he slotted the best cross-court nick of his life. Like a gladiator, he conducted the crowd, feeding off their energy. He powered on, saving a match point to take the fourth game 10-9 after 100 minutes of play. Both players were dead on their feet, but his mental and physical strength saw Adams prevail 9-2 in the fifth game of an epic Varsity match final.
The celebrations began. Coupled with an emphatic women's victory, it was all spiced rum and singalongs for the bus ride home.
Didn't see bagels on the RAC's menu, but the Cambridge Women's were serving bagels all day long.
Hannah Taylor took the court first at number 6. Although the youngest on the team, she had the greatest fire. She coped with the pressure of her first Varsity match with grace. Taylor showed off her speed as she chased down every ball. Her drives were powerful and tight. It wasn't long until she was shaking hands with her opponent - she had drawn first blood for Cambridge and set the winning tone for the rest of the day. Easy. 9-5, 9-2, 9-6.
Juliana Ganendra's match had a rocky start, with the referee forgetting it was English scoring and then five minutes of play with the score at 0-0. Finally, Ganendra drew first blood after an error from her opponent and let out a small shout of glee. After getting accustomed to her opponent's power, Ganendra started lobbing her serves and driving to the back corners before hitting a winner with her classic back hand volley drop. Ganendra won the first game 9-5. After a quick water break, Ganendra returned focused and determined. With disciplined deep drives, she won the next two games 9-0.
Nina Bugeja, the Maltese national champion, brought international expertise to the light blue. Her nimble footwork and great touch shots created beautiful squash. She was described as "The Dictator of the T" because of her absolute control of the court. Perhaps the squash team needs to go on tour to Malta - the birthplace of the Bugeja style. It wasn't long before Bugeja was shaking hands with her opponent, 9-1, 9-0, 9-1.
Molly Woods used her lefty magic to annihilate her opponent. Her agility on the court was spectacular, as she nipped between all the corners and dominated the T (perhaps it was the early morning fitness, or maybe her football blue?). She overpowered her opponent with her tremendous drives. O captain my captain. She truly led by example with her beautiful play. The final score was 9-0, 9-4, 9-1. It seemed fitting that the captain sealed the Light Blue win.
Hannah Blythe's match kept spectators on the edge of their seat. After a few loose shots, tensions escalated when her opponent's wild back swing smacked Blythe - millimetres from her eye. Blythe, initially startled and annoyed, soon buckled down and played beautiful squash, winning the first game 9-2. With a quick icing between games, Blythe would not let her injury stop her. After a few wild swings from her opponent and even a warning given by the referee, Blythe decided she wanted to get off the court and return to safety as quickly as possible. She won the next two games 9-3 and 9-0.
Ellie White took to the court last. Her eyes were slightly tired - storm Eunice had robbed her of sleep. She had spent the early hours of the morning organising a coach to transport the team and spectators after all trains were cancelled. The fatigue disappeared as soon as White stepped onto the court. Her clinical drops and powerful drives caused her to completely dominate the match. White won point after point, with little mercy for her opponent. Her dark blue counterpart only won one point - or as White's mum clarifies, "White lost 1 point". Final score was 9-0, 9-0, 9-1.
The Cambridge team lifted the trophy with an incredible 5-0 victory. We are extremely grateful to Royal Automobile Club and our President, Charlie McLean, who made the event possible. In addition, we are thankful for our coaches, who have guided us in our return to squash and provided invaluable advice. Finally, a massive thank you to our captain, Molly Woods, who guided us through an exciting year and inspired us with her sensational squash. GDBO.