The uninspiringly named Irish Junior Classification is the first of the 5 series of major Irish National Junior Tournaments and some would consider crucial to a good season. The results from this event will establish the seeding for the next (Ulster Open) at the end of November. A good seeding position can help players, especially to avoid top players in the opening rounds and with so many good players out there vying for the top 8 places it is a real bonus. A lot of preparation and planning goes into this event and with so much riding on a good result it can be a nervous time for both players and coach.
When with a week to go James complained of a sore throat I had a bit of a concern as he has been prone to chest infections over the years but he decided he would keep to his pre-tournament schedule and train up at the Ballincollig Club on Saturday. He had also been invited to the Irish Training Camp in Dublin on Sunday and was kindly offered a lift up to Dublin and a stay over at Dylan Grace’s. When he returned his throat was worse and he felt slightly swollen. A visit to the doctors confirmed tonsillitis and he was put on antibiotics and pain killers as he struggled to swallow. After 4 days he felt a bit better and insisted he would travel to Dublin and see what he was like on Saturday morning.
As a coach and parent I was in two minds to what to do and maybe it was a cop-out but I left the decision up to him but said that if there was any problem I would withdraw him from the event. Saturday morning came around and James played his first match in his group, after he lost the first set to a player ranked well below him I was concerned but he finished off the match with an easy three sets and seemed to hit his stride.
During his week in bed he had studied some of the video footage of his matches from last season and completed some video analysis. I was pleased that he had noticed a couple of tactical things that I had been trying to point out to him in training, with little success! After winning his second match again fairly easily he had his first test against the seed in his group James Joyce.
Joyce is a player who can deliver some remarkable results. I saw him at the Senior Interpros beating at Top 10 Irish Senior Peter Graham and he had also beaten a number of top Irish Juniors, so this was a real test of how James was playing. His first couple of sets were excellent and he appeared to be cruising in the third 9/4 and then 10/6 but then Joyce struck back to 10/9 and after a time out reached 10/10 and finally took the set 15/13. Again the momentum was with Joyce but in the fourth set it was James who came out strongly and raced to a 9/3 lead. Joyce once again rallied, or was it James feeling the pressure as he came back, thankfully James managed to steady the ship and ran out the winner and topped his group.
The second round group matched James up with Irish No.1 Zak Wilson, UCD’s Louis Murphy and Moutrath’s Paddy Vaughan. James’s match against Murphy was a very closely fought battle with players exchanging dominance but James had the edge especially with his service and some excellent backhand attack play, he eventually ran out winner 3/2 and with a 3/0 victory over Paddy Vaughan he was assured of qualifying for the second round. Zak dominated the U18 event and didn’t drop a set. James was disappointed that he didn’t play well against Zak, he had no expectation but he never got into any kind of rhythm.
James’s goal was to try and reach the ¼ final stages and with this accomplished he was able to relax a little in the next match even though he would now face the Irish No.2 Brian Dunleavy. I was delighted with his approach to the match and when he took the first set 11/9 I felt he was showing some of his best form. The second set was 11/6 and he dominated it with some flowing shots and accurate targeting. He was once again up in the third but Brian struck back again taking a very tense set 15/13. However this time James went back to the table full of confidence and executed his game plan to perfection taking the set 11/3. This without doubt is one of James’s best wins and I was so pleased that his preparation had delivered and he kept to some of the tactical points we had been working on as part of the lead up to this event.
The semi final saw James match up against Owen Cathcart and James hit the match running with a first set win 11/8. The second set was also competitive but James seemed to gradually tighten up as Cathcart took the dominance on the table and eased through the rest of the match with James producing too many errors. With the 3rd/4th place match between himself and Dylan Grace James was keen to redress the balance as Dylan has subjugated James in recent matches. The first two sets were a close competition with Dylan taking both sets 11/9 and with James becoming more and more defensive Dylan went on to win in three sets.
With all the concern over James’s fitness I was extremely pleased with his play and his results. As is often the case after the high of beating Brian Dunleavy and then losing to Owen and Dylan it was a tough way to end the day but a semi final placing at an Irish U18 event has to be a good result in anyone’s book.
There were no concerns over Mair’s health she appears as strong as an ox! She prepared for the event in her usual manner and once again I am left with the feeling what if?! Mair cruised through the first round group with wins against Amanda Taylor & Emma Kee. Her second round group had her in with Irish No.1 Chloe O’Halloran, she despatched the other two girls in the group Sarah O’Connor and Erin Pyper 3/0 but fell short against Chloe 3/0. Her objective was to reach the ¼ finals and with achieved she faced Marie Williams.
She narrowly lost the first set 14/12 on a net cord and went onto win the second 11/6, however Marie upped her game with some consistent openers and took the final two sets to leave Mair in the 5 to 8 play offs. Her first match was against Natasya Barry and after losing the first set she found her stride to take the match comfortably. Her next opponent was Kate Whelan Irish No.2 who had lost her ¼ final in a very tight match against an in form Nga Nguyen in 5 sets. Mair who had previously lost to Whelan at the Irish Senior Classifications tore into her and took the match 3/0 and was delighted to win and to take 5th place in the event.
My other daughter Jasmine played in the U13 event. I would describe her more as a recreational player as she trains irregularly but she loves to play at these events. Travelling up to Dublin and joining in with her siblings is her main objective. As long as she has a good book she is happy! She played in her first round group and was unlucky not to go through as she lost 3/2 to Lucy Mdvar and won another match 3/0. She does play much better in training and maybe she will produce a performance to match that as she gains more confidence. In her plate group she finished 3rd and finished up 15th but very little phases Jasmine and she smiled all the way through the day.
I had two other players competing at the event Niall O’Driscoll and Erik Olsson. As I have said in my blog previously I am reluctant to go into detail about their performances from a personal point of view but I was generally pleased with their performances. Niall who spends his summer sailing had a good win against fellow Munster player Conor Leahy who he has not beaten before. He lost to Thomas Early and Louis Murphy in his first round group and only failed to get through to the second round of the plate on count-back.
Erik has been working very hard during the summer and has been working with an Italian coach in the lead up to this event. I watched his matches during the U13 event and he won his first round group beating the No.6 seed Richard Thompson after coming back from 2/0 down. He missed out on qualifying from the second round on count-back missing out on 1 set. Julian Kelly who he lost to in this event he went onto beat in the U15s the following day. He is coming close to making a break-through and I feel it will be my job to get some consistency into his game and work on his tactical awareness more.