After four compelling semi-finals, the top seeds in both events won through to set up repeats of last year’s British Nationals finals … but of course it wasn’t quite as simple as that …
 Alison Waters bt [3/4] Jenny Duncalf 11/5, 11/9, 11/8 (43m)  Nick Matthew bt [5/8] Tom Richards 8/11, 11/6, 11/7, 11/6 (63m)
 James Willstrop bt [3/4] Peter Barker 6/11, 11/13, 12/10, 11/7, 11/3 (99m)
Aiming for a third final in a row, defending champion Laura Massaro came very close to losing her crown today as Madeline Perry, yet to reach a Nationals final, came within a whisker of producing a big upset in a fivegame thriller that went down to the wire.
There was little sign of imminent danger in the first as Massaro took an early lead and from 10-4 up finished off the game 11-7. But Perry had built some momentum, and a quick 7-1 lead in the second was enough to level the match despite Massaro’s late game effort, 11-7 again.
Another 7-1 lead in the third, this time to Massaro, and she regained the advantage taking it 11-4 as Perry lobbed out. The Irishwoman struck back though, pulling away from 5-all in the fourth, drawing level again 11-8 on her third game ball with a drive that died in the deep.
The decider was tense – the noise from the packed crowd was more subdued as the score rose incrementally, neither able to get more than a point ahead. Massaro finally edged ahead 7-5 but Perry took four in a row to lead 9-7.
Perry had a fairlty easy dropshot which she tinned – the crowd “oohed”, then Massaro pushed a volley drop into the nick to level.
A Perry boast clipped the tin for match ball, the crowd “oohed” again when Massaro ‘only’ got a let, and then the defending champion tinned a boast to set up extra points.
A crosscourt drop from Massaro, a big “CMON”, then Perry tinned an attempted drop, threw her racket in the air as another chance slipped away, and Massaro was into a third final, just.
That’s the best Madeline’s palyed against me for a while,” said a relieved Massaro. “I was a bit up and down mentally, probably because I haven’t played a tournament since January, but I was much better today than I was yesterday so hopefully I can improve again tomorrow.
“You can’t think about three titles – I was a kid when Cassie [Jackman] was unbeatable on here, I can’t compare myself to her yet. I’m really proud of my two titles, and happy to get through for a chance of a third.”
With two-time champion Massaro through to the final, she knew she would meet another two-time champion, but would it be Alison Waters or Jenny Duncalf?
Waters, last year’s runner-up, led for the vast majority of the match but she was never quite able to shake Duncalf off her tail.
The first game was the most comfortable as Waters edged ahead from 3-all to 7-4 and took the lead11-5 with a series of winning shots.
At 4-1 and then 7-2 in the second Waters was well in charge, but Duncalf, moving well, started to extend the rallies, and clawed her way back to 9-all only to give away a game ball with a tin from a good position. Waters only needed one chance, driving the ball deep to double her lead 11-9.
Duncalf still had the momentum though, and led in the early stages of the third. Once Waters had caught up at 6-all she again fired in a series of winners to earn four match balls at 10-6.
Duncalf got the better of two long rallies, winning the first with a deliberately-played long drop, the second with a sharp volley kill. But it was Waters who applied the finishing touch at the end of the final rally, firing it in short to reach a seventh Nationals final 11-8.
“That was a tough three-nil, the score didn’t really reflect the game,” said a relieved winner. “But last time we played in Cayman I lost 3-2, and I’ve had so many five-setters I really didn’t want it to go on much longer,
“I’m really delighted to reach another Nationals final, I can’t wait for tomorrow …”
James Willstrop admitted he was in danger of going home in yesterday’s quarter-final – well he was even close today as Peter Barker came within a couple of points of beating the two-time champion and second seed.
With Willstrop a little slow to get started Barker took control of the first, pulling clear from 5-all to take the lead 11-6. The challenger – trailing Willstrop 2-27 in their career head-to-head – stormed into a 6-2 lead into the second, but Willstrop started to find his range and levelled at 6-all.
Barker wasn’t to be denied though, and amid some long and determined rallies he kept his nose in front, just, doubling his advantage on his third game ball 13-11.
It was Willstrop who held a slender lead through most of the third, but Barker, with fistpumps and grimaces aplenty as he hit some crisp winners and unfortunate errors, levelled at 9-all to find himself two points from the final.
This time it was Willstrop who held firm, dropping for a first game basll, then slotting in a volley drop on his second opportunity to pull a game back 12-10.
Barker stayed in touch up to 5-all in the fourth, but from then on Willstrop assumed command, taking the match for the loss of just five more points 11-7, 11-3. after a 99-minute epic.
A narrow escape for Willstrop, an annoying almost for Barker, but a tense, high-quality match for the NSC crowd – and we’re only halfway through the day!
“I really had my back to the wall there,” admitted Willstrop. “He put so much pressure on me in the first two games. It became just a case of taking the match in bite-sized chunks, trying to win a rally or two at a time, and fortunately a few things started going for me in the third.
“I’m very pleased to be able to come back from such a precarious situation!”
“I played Tom in the semis a few years ago,” said Nick Matthew after the final match of the day. “He was just pleased to get there then, but now he’s on the verge of the world’s top ten, and I knew he’d come out strong, he came here to win the tournament this time.”
Tom Richards certainly did come out strong, taking the play to his illustrious opponent and taking the first game which he always led 11-8.
Matthew came out in the second looking as though he meant business, punching away two winners, but Richards hit back just as strongly to take a 4-2 lead.
That was as close as he got to an upset though, as Matthew knuckled down to business, reeled off six points in a row to make that game safe, and stayed on top throughout the third and fourth games despite Richards’ best, and considerable, efforts.
“I managed to get in front after he’d made a great start, but it was certainly never easy,” said Matthew.
“I gave it all I had tonight, but Nick was just too sharp,” tweeted Richards.
“James and I have both been telling everyone that there’s no way we can just turn up and expect to get to the final,” concluded Matthew, “and we’ve both been proven right time after time.”
Tough it might have been for the top seeds and last year’s finalists to come through to the final again, but nevertheless that’s what’s happened this week, and the NSC crowd can look forward to two fantastic finals tomorrow.
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