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 at Eastbourne to ensure Warwickshire women remain in the elite Group One, 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.
The top Warwickshire pairing of Emily Smith and Manisha Foster took 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 second and third Surrey pairs had the edge.
Anane and Hillyer had both pulled off close victories, partnering less experienced players in earlier matches, but their experience 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,” said captain and former England international Kay 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 players Luke Hammond, 20, and Cameron Malik, 27, as Warwickshire Men missed out on promotion to Group 4 at Cambridge.
After losing to Nottinghamshire in their final match in Group 5, their rivals won promotion instead.
Hammond, 20, 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, 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 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.”