Tom Billings and Richard Owen made an emphatic start to their challenge for the Rackets World Doubles Championship title at Queens Club on Saturday afternoon.
The pair beat title holders James Stout and Jonathan Larken 4-0 in the first leg of the competition.
Billings, the World Singles Champion, and his faultless partner Owen, had similarly dispatched their opponents Mike Bailey and Nick James in the first leg of the championship eliminator, played in October, but caught Stout and Larken who have held the doubles title since 2016, off-guard with their tenacity, winning 15-9, 15-6, 15-10, 17-15.
This leaves the champions with everything to do in New York, where the second leg is played on Saturday 13 November and where both Stout and Larken have home court advantage, as the competition is now one game away from inaugurating new champions.
Ahead of the match, Stout, who is the Head Rackets Professional at the New York Racquet and Tennis Club, admitted that the difference between the two venues involves reshaping the players’ overall game.
Stout said: “Queens is regarded as a very difficult court, and to play well here, you have to play a different style of game.
“Being based in New York, which is a very fast court, the game is completely different. You’re basically having to relearn the individual characteristics of a court.”
The first leg match was enticingly set up, with a particular focus on Billings and Stout as former and current world singles champions, and long-term opponents.
Whilst Billings has held the singles title since 2019, Stout is a historic figure in the sport and was world champion from 2008 until his retirement from singles in 2019.
Since 2015 Stout has played with his partner Larken, who plays as an amateur as Billings and Owen do, and Billings and Owen first challenged Stout and Larken for the doubles title in 2018.
This Saturday’s scoreline read as a fitting riposte to 2018’s competition, when Stout and Larken won 4-0 in the first leg in New York, before finishing the competition in cutthroat style, winning the necessary game in London in 16 minutes.
Stout and Larken shot out of the gate in the first game, going nine points ahead, before a serving run from Billings established the pair’s footing with seven quick points to kick off their challenge.
In Rackets, points are won by the server, and a pair gets two opportunities to serve, with partners being either first or second ‘hand’ depending on their order of service.
If a point is lost, first hand transfers to second, with the opposing pair gaining the right to serving and ensuing points when the second’s serve falters.
This aspect of the game, as well as the frequent giving of ‘lets’ in instances where a fast ball may have been stopped unintentionally by a doubles-crowded court, keeps anticipation on a knife’s edge, with a single point often having huge build-up for exaggerated relief for its winner.
After stopping Stout and Larken in their tracks in the first game, both pairs’ start to the second was hard-fought, with hands and pairs passing the serve between themselves to reach a cagey 4-4 that reflected the skill of all four players.
But Billings and Owen pushed forward, and their serves pulled them ahead by an assertive seven points, with Stout and Larken only winning two more points as the challengers saw out the game.
The third game was a close-run, and the determination of both pairs showed as the rallies lengthened and the shots were struck harder, but Billings and Owens held fast, getting seemingly-impossible shots with great reach, and spurred on by a packed and partisan gallery.
Match point in the fourth game left time for one last controversy when Stout requested a new ball as Owen was serving for the match.
There was debate as to whether the call had come too late into Owen’s preparations, and although the new ball was pitched down to the players, Owen had no hesitation explaining his position to both Stout and the referee before the serve was taken again.
But there was no destabilisation to the challengers’ game, and they travel to New York next week seeking a four-year retribution.