World Championship Challenge 2022
Sep 11, 2022 - Sep 15, 2022 Prested Hall IRTPA
Real Tennis has a new World Champion as a result of three days exciting play at Prested. Camden Riviere reclaimed the crown he lost in 2018, beating Rob Fahey, the greatest of all time, by seven sets to five.
5/6 6/3 4/6 6/2 6/2 6/2 6/3 5/6 3/6 6/3 5/6 6/2
World Championship Day 1 - Sunday 11th September - 5/6 6/3 4/6 6/2 (two sets all)
World Championship Day 2 - Tuesday 13th September - 6/2 6/2 6/3 5/6 (five-three to Cam)
World Championship Day 3 - Thursday 15th September - 3/6 6/3 5/6 6/2 (seven-five to Cam)
World Championship Day-by-Day write up
Written by Jim Zug
6-5, 1-6, 6-4, 2-6
It was an extraordinary first day to the 2022 World Championship.
Or rather the twice-postponed 2020 World Championship. We waited exactly 1,597 days from the astonishing third and final day of the 2018 Challenge Round at Queen’s until we all met again on the sunny grounds of Prested Hall for the next Challenge. Over four years and four months—that was a nineteenth-century sort of break between matches.
It was a lovely day in Essex with patches of bright sunshine breaking through the clouds in the mid-seventies, fairly humid. Pol Roger supplied champagne as we reunioned together again on the lawn outside the main house. There were a fleet of people from all four-playing nations, as well as many from other countries (one even from Saudi Arabia). Among the many Americans were Aiken’s usual contingent, including Cissie & Michael Sullivan and Geoff & Shannon Ellis; Anders Cohen; Howard & Clare McMorris (Howard making his eleventh Challenge); the Vern Cassins; and most of all, Ryan Carey, who was brilliantly managing the live streaming from his alcove in the Prested pro shop.
A sold-out crowd entered into the galleries at Prested: sorted by lanyards (with Fahey and Riviere’s signatures on one side), we sat in the dedans, side gallery, the glass gallery behind the hazard battery wall, the clerestory and in the royal dedans, aka the bistro. After remarks by Alistair Curley, the master of ceremonies, and Savannah Poolman, the chair of the organizing committee and a moment of silence for the recently-passed Queen Elizabeth II, the most unusual launch of a Challenge was heard: a young Sebastian Adams-Eaton, in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, played the national anthems of Great Britain, the U.S. and then Australia on his electric guitar while standing at the main wall.
We were ready to rock.
Camden Riviere, the challenger, and Rob Fahey, the defending champion, wore black armbands on their non-playing arm, in honor of Queen Elizabeth. Riviere sported a tee-shirt with a large logo of the new tennis court in America, Westwood Country Club outside of Washington; black socks; and colorful sneakers. Fahey sported a collared shirt and Nike sneakers with a bright blue section that read “Air.”
Fahey won the toss (after a debate about whether an American $1 coin was fair currency to use for the toss) and elected to serve. Riviere took the first point off a chase and we were off. The first set took nearly an hour. Both players took a while to settle in and get comfortable. Riviere went up 3-1 and 4-2; at one point he was able to beat chase two. Fahey reeled off three games and then Riviere pulled one back and it was 5-5. The game at 4-4 was the highlight of the set. Fahey went up 40-15 and went through five game balls before being able to secure it. He won the thirteenth game and the first set, much to the amazement of those punters who were predicting a quick and easy route to victory for Riviere.
The second set went perhaps more according to expectations. Riviere went up 3-0 (after a marathon game at 2-0), then 5-1 and closed it out at 6-2. As usual, Riviere retrieved so many impossible balls. He also defended the dedans well and was hitting targets. In the first set he had four grilles and two dedan forces; Fahey had just one grille and four dedans forces; in the second set Riviere got five grilles but no dedans while Fahey collected four dedans and towards the end of the set he abandoned any floor game and blasted (often effectively) to the dedans.
Riviere went up 2-0 in the third set, having captured eight of the last ten games and seemingly on cruise control. Then some incandescent play from the champion. Fahey climbed back to 2-2; then 3-3; then he went up 5-3 and hung on to win the third 6-4 amid thunderous cheering from the Australian contingent in the clerestory. It was a master class. Fahey climbed the wall by the tambour, in his signature move from days of old, to intercept a grille-seeking ball. Three times in the match, he hit a ball behind his body, showing absolutely amazing touch (if perhaps slightly faulty footwork?). Riviere found more targets in the third set—two winning galleries, four grilles and one dedans v. Fahey’s one grille and five dedans—but the match turned on one specific matter. Riviere’s serving didn’t threaten or pin Fahey down, and often he was able to bully a cut volley return of serve into the main-wall corner for a winner or a chase. Riviere served mostly high drops, bobbles and the demi-pique but often they were too short or too long and rarely put Fahey on the defensive.
The fourth set went fast. Riviere continued to move Fahey from side to side and up and back. He almost always turned on Fahey’s serve, taking the ball off the back wall and boasting it short to the floor near the service galleries. Fahey tired. Both players double-faulted once. Fahey took his time serving—wiping his hands on both sides, bouncing the ball, faulting once and going back to get a second ball. When he had time, he was able to put balls away, particularly cannoning forehands into the nick on the gallery-side of the service back wall. But there were too many unforced errors and missed targets.
Fahey was famous for winning the fourth set on the first day of the Challenge. It did it twelve times in a row and it was only in 2016 and again in 2018 that Riviere broke that streak. Today, Riviere captured the fourth set to garner some momentum, but it was perhaps a small consolation considering that after nearly three hours of brilliant and compelling play, the two players ended where they began: tied.
Tuesday evening awaits; and we are now guaranteed a third day on Thursday.
2-6, 2-6, 3-6, 6-5
Day Two was quite different than Day One at Prested Hall.
There were new faces onsite. Owner Mike Carter, who dreamed up Prested twenty-eight years ago, returned from Spain. Former world champion Penny Lumley appeared. A second American-based professional, Conor Medlow (Chicago), joined Penny’s son John (Philadelphia) in the galleries. The weather was suddenly autumnal, chilly and damp, with rain threatening and then finally in the third set some spitting turned into a steady, light patter. And everyone was attuned to historical resonances after the fourth annual International Conference on the History of Tennis—four-string guitar and fourteenth-century singing, awards and discussions all concluded.
History was perhaps not on the side of the champion. Only twice in his previous fourteen Challenges had Rob Fahey split the first day’s four sets. Both times it was against Camden Riviere, in 2008 in Fontainebleau and 2014 in Melbourne, and both times he had managed to turn it around on the second day, winning three of the four sets to take commanding, and it turned out impregnable leads.
But now it was different. Fahey, grey-haired and avuncular, has become the professional ranks’ elder statesman. He’ll turn fifty-five next April. He’s playing someone who is more than six points better off handicap and who wasn’t even alive when an eighteen-year-old Fahey first walked off Davey Street and onto the famous tennis court in Hobart. The last we had seen him on the conclusion of Day One, he was in flip-flops having a beer by the bar, clearly pleased he copped two sets. Could Fahey summon the old magic one more time on Day Two? Would the balls—a final set (of eighty not the usual seventy) made by master ball maker Steve Ronaldson two and a half years ago—soften enough to provide any bite for him and his classic railroad on the slick, sleek, smooth Prested penthouse or help him retrieve a tiny bit better?
To learn the answers, another sold-out crowd of two hundred spectators filled out Prested Hall’s glass court, and a nearly equal number around the world joined on the live stream, captivated by the dozen camera angles and instant replays adroitly operated by Ryan Carey and the commentary offered by Robert Shenkman and Lewis Williams, Leamington’s dynamic duo.
Riviere, sporting black sneakers this time, continued to serve to start the fifth set, having been serving when the fourth set had concluded forty-nine hours earlier. Fahey greeted him with a main-wall force the first time he touched the ball. Hello. On the next point, Fahey cannoned a drive to the nick, chase worse than three. Riviere managed to beat the chase but Fahey, with two dedans forces and a rocket to the grille, clearly needed not a moment to settle in.
The fourth game was pivotal. It lasted almost fifteen minutes. Fahey squandered six game balls, Riviere two, before Riviere hammered it home. He quickly threw away the next game but then took the next three with relative ease. A pattern emerged. Respect the bobble was the watchword. Riviere doubled down on the serve, hitting it every time and with more effectiveness than on Day One. Very often Fahey had to boast a return off the side wall or chop at it. It produced ten outright errors from Fahey and many more balls that Riviere could dig out with his trademark jackrabbity speed. Fahey was unable to get the ball in the back of the dedans net (he had just two more forces after the first game and only one grille). Riviere was confident, at ease. He varied the pace: some blistered line drives, some feathered, shaped arrows to the corners. And his retrieving was incredible: always balanced, always moving to the ball like liquid mercury.
Riviere again lost the first game of the sixth set, again went up 3-1, again lost the fifth game and then again went on cruise control. Fahey tried to slow it down: he faulted a dozen first serves and allowed marker Andrew Lyons the opportunity to clear any ball on his side of the court. He tried to force but Riviere defended brilliantly—it was a bad sign for Fahey that Riviere had twice as many forces in the sixth set as he did. Instead, unforced errors began to plague Fahey. Too many balls crunching onto the penthouse, too many flubs into the net. He even tried a behind-the-back stroke and only caught air.
The seventh set started the same, Riviere hopping to a 4-1 lead. Then it unexpectedly tightened and Fahey reeled it back to 4-3. Riviere, up the task, showed world-class skill. He caressed a ball into the backhand corner to beat a chase of worse than a yard and soon cracked two balls into the grille. In short order, he had the third set of the day.
It accelerated. Riviere flew to a 4-0 lead. A bagel day loomed. Fahey looked tired. It was over. And really over. With a lead of six sets to two, Riviere would be, if history was a guide, certain of victory. In two centuries of Challenges, no one had ever won five sets on a third, final day. Punch Fairs snagged three in 1904 in Brighton but fell short to Peter Latham; Lachie Deuchar took three in 1993 in New York but fell short to Wayne Davies; and of course Tim Chisholm electrified the world when he grabbed the first four sets on the final day at Hampton Court in 2002 but could just not finish off Fahey in the thirteenth set.
The old champion had one more push. 4-1. 4-2, 4-3. Could he really come back? He didn’t hit a single target in the first four games; in the last seven he smacked ten dedans, two winning galleries and one grille. Simply spectacular. The crowd, hitherto subdued, roared with approval. Riviere responded and built back to a 5-3 lead, but tension was thick in the Essex air. Riviere had four sets points. Four times, Fahey survived. He began to gesticulate to the crowd, fist-pumping, waving a No.1 finger.
5-5. During a wild point, someone in the clerestory shouted loudly when it appeared a Riviere ball had gone out of court. Both players hesitated; Riviere soon finished off the point; but a let was called and the point replayed. Fahey dashed to 40-0. Riviere saved two nail-biting set points but couldn’t manage a third.
After exactly two and a half hours of play on Day Two, Riviere had a 5-3 lead, but Fahey was still decidedly in the match. His feet ached. He had changed sneakers after the seventh set and as soon as he finished, he was back in his flip-flops. But there was hope.
Fahey and Riviere talked at length at the net and then a half hour later at the bar. Beyond the many, many times they’ve played against each other in regular tournaments, this was their fifth Challenge together. No two players in history had ever undergone this most intimate of trials that many times. They had a unique bond. This eighth set in 2022 might have been the most dramatic, most intense of the fifty-one Challenge sets they had so beautifully and brilliantly shared.
6-3, 3-6, 5-6, 6-2
FINAL Riviere 5-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, 5-6, 6-3, 3-6, 5-6, 6-2
It was an even colder, damper Thursday afternoon at Prested for Day Three, upper fifties and raining. Everyone, though, was happy to gather again, needing to return to the scene after having barely recovered from Day Two. Ringing in everyone’s ears—still echoing out through the car park and down Prested’s long drive and into Feering—was the roar after the climatic final point of Day Two.
It was a twenty-six stroke masterpiece at 5-all, 40-30, set-point for Rob Fahey. Camden Riviere was on hazard size. He smacked one ball of the tambour and as he had all day slaloming across the court to get every other ball. Looking thirty years younger himself, Fahey flashed from side to side like greased lightning. Once he desperately dug out a ball under last gallery and then spun off the wall, a youthful 360, and recovered back to the middle of the court. It was breathtaking. Three times Fahey nearly slid the ball into winning gallery. The rally ended with Riviere punching the ball into the net and Fahey raising his arms like a prizefighter after a knockout.
No one conceived that the Day Three could be better. Fahey was down 5-3 in sets. He had the momentum from the last set. But his feet were hobbled. He changed sneakers on Day Two and afterwards there were three reports on what was happening—“My feet are broken,” was what Fahey said; “He’s fifty-four,” said his wife, women’s world champion Claire Fahey; and later we heard about swelling of the interphalangeal joints of his toes and a toenail coming off. This is the beauty and pain of the Challenge—three days of concentrated play that takes its toll.
The courtside punters and pundits said that Fahey would have to win the ninth set—the first of Day Three—if he would be able to make any sort of substantive inroads on Riviere. That proved not to be true. Fahey lost the ninth set. He evened it at 1-1 and then it was 5-1 for Riviere. Fahey climbed back, saving five set points across a couple of games before Riviere buried a ball into the grille to clinch it 6-3.
Fahey varied his serve significantly for the first time in the Challenge—under-arm twists, demi-piques, a few chandelles. But Riviere stymied him. For decades with Fahey, he had a steady, clear-cut pattern of short, decisive points. When serving, it was serve, return, ball into the grille; and when receiving it was serve, main-wall force. Bang.
At Prested, his serves weren’t that intimidating, according to Giles Doy’s Winning Gallery feed. Usually a server wins about sixty percent of the points played; in the Challenge, Riviere was winning fifty percent but Fahey only thirty-six percent, with a further thirty percent of the points ending with Riviere setting a chase.
And on Day Three Fahey’s return wasn’t troubling Riviere enough at the start. In the tenth set, Riviere started off with two grilles in the first game, but quickly momentum swung towards Fahey. He secured his first two-game lead since the middle of the third set on Day One when he was briefly up 5-3—in other words, since forever. He got breathing room at 3-1, then 4-2, then 5-3. Then he closed out the set.
Confident and focused, Riviere kept plugging away. Their pre-return routines deepened: Fahey blowing on his hand, tugging on the shorts on the left leg; Riviere tugging on his shirt, lifting it up.
The eleventh set reminded everyone of the eighth set. Riviere hopped to a lead—3-1 and then 5-3—and then Fahey reeled it back. Fahey tried to force on every ball he could. Riviere started to miss slightly—three times at 5-4 he clipped the top of the net, twice the ball went down and the third time it went over. At 5-all, the tension was unbearable. Riviere had two championship points and couldn’t convert either. In one rally, he had balls off the back wall and even the penthouse, almost sitters, and neither time he was unable carve them out of Fahey’s reach. On the second of Fahey’s set points, the champion converted.
A twelfth set. Extraordinary. The first couple of games were very tight. But Riviere didn’t deflate after being within a point of victory. Showing real intestinal fortitude, he backed it up, remaining calm, exhibiting strong body language, continuing to play his game. At the same time, Fahey noticeably slowed, making racquet errors, grimacing every time he put a ball up on the penthouse (once even momentarily shifting his racquet to his left hand as he made his way back into position to await Riviere’s reply).
Then it was 5-2, 40-30 and Riviere serving and defending a chase of a yard worse than last (what at Prested, with its large striped floor, is called chase BFG or Big Fat Green). Finally, the ball went Riviere’s way and victory was finally his.
For Riviere, he became just the third man to win a world singles championship, lose it and then come back to reclaim it again (after Peter Latham in 1907 and Fred Covey in 1922). It was an emotional moment for all Americans. It was a mere week after the funeral of another American world champion, Pete Bostwick, and it was just a few hours after another American tennis legend, Sam Howe, had died at the age of eighty-four. Two Hall of Famers passing from the scene, and Riviere, with his stirring victory, breathed new life into U.S. tennis.
And then there was Fahey. Afterwards, he said simply: “I was very glad to put on a spectacle worthy of this event.” He had done that, winning five sets, pushing it deep into a third day, remaining on court for well over eight hours and forcing his challenger to play his absolute best.
During the middle of Day Three’s play, another tennis GOAT with the initials RF came out to announce his retirement from competition. Roger Federer was a counterpart to Rob Fahey—both played with crowd-pleasing style and punishing panache; both had complete games, with no weaknesses and far too many strengths; both set the career mark for Grand Slam victories (Federer’s mark is now broken of course); and both stayed at the top of the game far past the age when everyone else retired.
It is all but certain that Fahey will not attempt to join the Eliminators and return to the Challenge when it is next held in 2023. So we have seen the last time he plays at the very highest level. Thirteen times he won the world title. Will that record ever be broken?
And Fahey came within a whisker of topping the only legitimate accolade he left unclaimed. Pierre Etchebaster reigned as world champion for 321 months (from May 1928 to February 1955), the longest stretch in which actual championships were regularly played. Fahey ends his reign just two months short at 319 months (March 1994 to May 2016 and April 2018 to September 2022).
Just as Great Britain this week said farewell to one beloved ruler and welcomed another, real tennis did the same. Long live the king.