For a second year running it was a case of what could have been for Loughborough Sport as they finished runners-up in the National Badminton League Final, losing out to Birmingham Lions 3-1 in an unbelievably close final.
After beating last year’s champions Team Derby 3-2 in the semi-finals and having gone unbeaten in the regular season, Loughborough Sport had started the final as favourites. The team spirit and togetherness shown by the squad, largely made up of Loughborough University students and graduates, is undoubtedly one of the key ingredients to the team’s success.
Greg Mairs and Jenny Moore were first up in the mixed doubles, taking on Heather Olver and Nico Ruponen. They made the perfect start as they raced into an early lead, winning the first game 9-2, but the Lions duo quickly pegged them back 6-9. Despite the Loughborough coaches calling a timeout, the duo in purple in couldn’t quite stem the flow, also losing the third game 6-9. In the fourth Mairs and Moore failed to convert their Powerplay, worth an additional point, at 3-3 and ultimately that was the difference, as Birmingham took it 7-9 to win the first match 3-1.
Next it was Chloe Birch’s turn to take on her arch-rival and UK number one Fontaine Chapman. Chloe came into finals day with a ten match unbeaten run, which included a narrow victory over Chapman, but that was ended by Malaysian Lyddia Cheah in the semis.
Straight away the comeback was on, as Birch came from 4-8 down to take the first game 9-8. The momentum continued in the second game as the Loughborough student raced into an early lead. Despite saving an incredible rally on Birch’s Powerplay, Chapman couldn’t stop the Birch taking the second game 9-4.
Birch was on fire, winning six points on the bounce to lead 7-3 in the third game, which she duly wrapped up 9-7, despite Chapman winning her Powerplay.
Post-match she told the media: “I think that’s the quickest that I’ve come out and really owned the game against a player of the quality of Fontaine. I knew if I could get on top all the pressure was on her, especially after last time when she came back, as I knew she couldn’t handle the pressure, so I just went for it.
“This morning was tough; Lyddia Cheah is really good player but I didn’t come out with enough speed or the confidence that usually do and that cost me. But to come back this afternoon and play the way I did, I’m really happy with it.”
Henri Hurskainen took to the court this evening after losing out to Rajiv Ouseph, the UK number one, this morning. Despite a strong start he also lost the first game 6-9 to Birmingham’s Toby Penty. The second game followed a similar pattern to the first, Hurskainen in the ascendancy but Penty never far behind. In the end the Birmingham man opted for a Powerplay at 7-8 down, which he won to clinch it 9-8.
Finally Hurskainen finished off a game, taking the third 9-6. At 2-1 the Swede raced into a 7-3 lead, but after a series of errors Penty brought it back to 8-8. The man with the ginger locks swept his hair back one final time, for the game at least, as he finally won it 9-8 to take the match to a tiebreak.
Opting for the Powerplay from the off, Hurskainen lead 2-0, but he wasted two match points. That meant it would go the full distance, to five, with Penty leading 4-3. It was the man in red who converted, wrapping up the match 3-5, to put Birmingham back in front at 1-2.
To keep Loughborough’s hopes alive team captain Lauren Smith and Jenny Wallwork had to win. They looked great in the semi-final, beating their Team Derby opponents easily, but could they record the same result against Alida Chen and Sarah Walker?
Smith and Wallwork have both won Commonwealth Games silver medals and they showed that ability taking the first two games 9-2, 9-5. They didn’t have it all their own way though, losing the third 6-9 and the fourth 7-9, sending it to a tiebreak just like the men’s singles.
Despite Wallwork returning two shots whilst flat on her back, Birmingham won the first point, a fortunate net cord giving them a second, and setting up championship point. Long was the call by the line judge, sending the Birmingham Lions fans and players into raptures as they clinched the AJ Bell NBL title.
You could see it on the Loughborough players faces how much losing hurt, especially for a second year in a row. However there is no doubt they’ll come back stronger next season.
Post-match Birch commented: “We’re gutted to lose, especially on the women’s doubles where we had it in the bag and let it slip. All credit to Birmingham; Toby Penty played really, really well but the women’s doubles is tough as we know Lauren and Jenny are much better players. But that’s the NBL – it’s good if you’re on the winning side but not if you’re on the losing side. It’s tough to take two years in a row.”
Report courtesy of Loughborough University