If there had been an award for the Player of the Tournament, as in many sports, then it would have been very difficult indeed to overlook the claims of Alpha’s Tony Stephenson in the Irish Nationals.
Despite there had been a star-studded line-up competing it was Stephenson who had the spectators on the edge of their seats including former international John Scott who remains one of a very small, select group to have lifted a hat-trick of National titles back in the late Seventies.
Currently studying Sports Science in Leeds Beckett University, Stephenson has been a member of Ulster’s inter county side this year but was certainly looking refreshed and on top of his game as he brushed aside Kevin Byrne (21-5 21-8) while No3/4 seed Nigel Boyne was forced to retire with the score evenly poised at 16-21 21-13 to take Stephenson, now 23, into a semi-final contest against the defending champion Jonathan Dolan from Sligo.
For the former Wallace High School pupil this clash could not have come at a better time to resurrect his standing as a singles player having fallen from No2 back in 2013 to No12.
The Ulster Open double champion last year, however, was to stutter in the opening set against Dolan, who raced into an 11-6 advantage at the interval and he was to go one set down 21-12 and need a few words of encouragement from his doubles partner for many years Tony Murphy.
It certainly must have done the trick, for Stephenson was to come out of the blocks at a fair rate of knots and had a 6-0 advantage before Dolan won his first point of the second set.
Although by the interval Dolan had started to creep back into the match, Stephenson was playing with a lot of confidence making his opponent work very hard for any respite and at 11-6 ahead, the Lisburn player was commanding the stage.
Dolan pulled back to 12-all and Tony’s concentration and confidence may on other occasions have wavered, but he stepped up his game again, mixing his game with deft net shots which often wrong-footed his opponent, with powerful smashes which left Dolan in a quandary as to how he could break his opponent’s defence and Stephenson was to win nine of the next twelve points to level at one set all.
While quite a few other matches were taking place on neighbouring courts the Dolan v Stephenson clash had caught the attention of the spectators and they were looking forward to an exciting finale to this semi-final but with Dolan being faulted for his service to bring the scores level at 4-all, this was to mark the beginning of the end for the defending champion’s challenge and it was Stephenson who reached the interval enjoying a 11-4 lead from which Dolan had no way back and the Alpha player booked his place in the final against Joshua Magee 21-8.
Having been runner-up to Jonathan Dolan in last year’s Irish Nationals, Magee was certainly not going to be a walk-over for Stephenson and the 20 year-old, as part of what has really become Team Magee, is registering his undoubted promise following his appearance at the 2012 European Junior Championships.
Although a totally different type of player to Dolan, the final was always going to be a long drawn out contest with Stephenson having to try and curtail the speed and power of his younger opponent and this is largely what took place. Magee set off at a pace and Stephenson was bidding to stay in the match controlling the opening set 21-15 only for Magee to level at 21-12 and the decider going to the wall but the Alpha 23 year-old had enough nous and confidence in his own ability to see the match out 21-17 in a final lasting one hour.
Partnering Jonathan Dolan, Stephenson could – and dare I say should – have added the Mens Doubles title to his haul of titles this year.
Seeded No3/4 they came through a quarter-final against Nigel Boyne and Owen Marron 21-15 21-8 and were due to meet Alpha’s Ciaran Chambers and Ryan Stewart in the semis but the No2 seeds had made an early exit 21-9 21-18 to Daniel Magee and Niall Tierney and it was a frantic display which gripped the spectators attention again.
Dolan/Stephenson comprehensively took their experienced opponents apart in the opening exchanges winning the first set 21-13 and may have considered it would be plain sailing in the second but then Magee/Tierney stepped up their game and snatched the second 21-16.
The deciding set was there for the taking and neither partnership was willing to admit defeat and with the semi-final 48 minutes old it was Stephenson who was to play the sweetest of crosscourt drop shots to give them a match point at 20-17 only for Magee/Tierney to counter to 20-19.
Stephenson then sealed the 21-19 victory after 48 minutes by catching the opposition out of position but there was still a further match to come if they were to snatch the title from the No2 seeds Joshua and Sam Magee and that was going to take 54 minutes of even more exhilarating badminton.
As expected the final lived up to expectations with Dolan and Stephenson just about taking a one set advantage 21-19 and then seeing the second snatched from their grasp at the last minute as Josh and Sam took the final into the deciding set.
This gave them a fresh impetus and whilst Dolan and Stephenson were still in contention up to the second quarter of the match, the top seeds raised their game to a new level and there was little the opposition could do about it as they clinched the match 21-14 for a memorable victory and one which stands alongside many memorable victors of the past.
Alpha’s Sinead Chambers and Jennie King lifted the Womens Doubles crown beating No2 seeds Sara Boyle and Rachael Darragh 21-11 21-6 with the latter pair having taken 37 minutes to see off Laura Butler and Aisling Ryan in the semi 17-21 21-12 21-8 while in the quarter-final the prospective champions recorded a 21-10 21-8 win over Catherine Coyle and Dona Scott.
Twenty seven year-old Chloe Magee will undoubtedly be a key figure in Ireland’s European Mixed Doubles Team’s aspirations in Belgium later this month, is now ranked No38 after her most successful eighteen months on the circuit, but was never really out of first gear taking the womens singles crown yet again, the first back in 2007.
A 21-9 21-10 victory over Norma McInyre took the top seed from Raphoe into the semi-final with Moya Ryan unable to fare much better going down 21-11 21-12 and while Rachael Darragh, Chloe’s niece, is rapidly making progress to become the No2 singles player in Ireland, she progressed through to the final with a 21-10 21-12 victory over Sara Boyle and despatched Laura Butler 21-7 21-1.
In the final Chloe’s class was always in evidence though this was a competitive workout as she continues her recovery from a knee injury and in Miss Darragh’s case the 21-15 21-14 defeat will further cement her standing in Ireland.
However in the mixed doubles she was to make her exit with Daniel Magee at the semi-final stage beaten inevitably by top seeds Sam and Chloe Magee 21-9 21-13.
The top seeds who had also brought an end to the hopes of Stewart Lightbody and Sara Boyle 21-16 21-13 were to go on to give Chloe her second title of this year’s Nationals when they knocked out No2 seeds Ciaran and Sinead Chambers of Alpha in the final but they were never able to show the consistency of their 21-10 21-16 semi-final victory over Tony Murphy and Jennie King in the final, with the Magee’s taking the title 21-9 21-13.