Loughborough Women’s 1st team are through to the BUCS Championship final after beating Bath in a shootout amid dramatic scenes at the Dan Maskell Centre. The semi-final was the third meeting between the two sides this season and, with Loughborough slight favourites after coming out on top in both league fixtures, the pressure was on to go one better than in the past three campaigns which all ended in semi-final elimination. In a raucous atmosphere, the women in purple held their nerve despite being pushed all the way by the excellent Bath quartet to seal a place in the final and send Loughborough’s fans into delirium.
The doubles kicked off proceedings with Bath grabbing the early momentum by taking the opening set on both courts. Loughborough didn’t panic, however, shaking off their sluggish start with the help of some ferocious ground strokes from Bullock and Rodbourn to push back the Bath pairing and race into a 5-2 second set lead. Things were tighter between home favourites Nicholls and Holtum against Hurst and Iremescu on court one, with the visitors breaking the Nicholls serve to put themselves 3-2 up. The tension on both courts was palpable, with Tennis Programme Director Helen Reesby making a rare appearance courtside to offer some sage advice at the changeovers.
The big occasion seemed to inspire the hosts, with Holtum producing a searing forehand winner on a crucial sudden-death deuce point to break back for four-all. Suddenly, momentum had swung to Loughborough, with both pairs managing to level their matches at a set apiece. The atmosphere cranked up a notch as a pivotal point in the tie was reached, with both rubbers to be decided by third set tiebreaks. Nicholls and Holtum played a nerveless breaker, losing just 3 points to prevail 3-6 6-4 (10-3). On the other court, Starling and Cole got the better of the hosts, with a final score of 6-2 2-6 (10-5) leaving the tie poised on a knife edge at 2-2 going into the singles.
Loughborough took another step towards the final with a comfortable 6-2 6-3 Holtum triumph over Starling, with Lou well on top throughout. Bath refused to lie down though with Rodbourne falling 3-6 4-6 to the impressive Cole, the Bath player’s agility and movement around the court eventually proving too much in what was an evenly-matched encounter. Captain Nicholls, serenaded with chants of ‘We all dream of a team of Liv Nicholls’ from a surprisingly tuneful crowd, lived up to her billing despite a second set lapse, coming through in three against Bath number one Emma Hurst. After the first two sets were shared, Nicholls slammed the door on her opponent, doling out a bagel in the decider to once again give Loughborough the lead in the tie.
Hayden-Scott had replaced Bullock for the fourth singles, taking on Iremescu of Bath. She raced out of the blocks, leading by a set and a break to put Loughborough on the brink of victory. However, the feisty Romanian fought back, retrieving the break and playing an excellent tiebreak to level the match. From there, Hayden-Scott was unable to stop Iremescu completing the comeback, in the end going down 6-2 6-7 3-6. With Loughborough and Bath locked at 6-6 at the close of regular play, the tie was heading for a shootout to determine who would go through to the prestigious final.
With the shootout consisting of a best-of-three tiebreak showdown between the teams, and with such a big prize at stake, the atmosphere was wrought with tension. It would have been easy to freeze, but thankfully for the hosts, Rodbourne appeared unfazed by the situation and dispatched her opponent easily to put Loughborough one up. In response, amid incredible home support that at times resembled an East Midlands Roland Garros, Hurst edged out Nicholls 10-8 to send the shootout and the tie to the wire, with Loughborough’s fate resting on Holtum and Bullock’s shoulders. The dozens of enraptured home fans roared them over the line as they played a near-flawless breaker, Bath finally finding the tape at 9-2 down to seal the shootout, the tie, and a place in the Championship final for Loughborough.
The final will take place on the 23rd March in Nottingham, and a Loughborough victory would be a fitting way to cap off another terrific year. The team will take on Durham’s shock quarter-final conquerors Stirling, who have looked in imperious form this season. But with Loughborough just one win from glory, and playing with this sort of confidence, they will surely have a real chance of bringing the Championship trophy home for the first time. Nottingham Tennis Centre may not quite be Wembley, but Loughborough Women’s 1st won’t care- the countdown to the cup final has begun!
Elsewhere, Loughborough Women’s 2nd cup adventure was ended in the Trophy semi-finals with an 8-4 home defeat to Northumbria.