On the week of September 3rd 2018, 6 nations from NATO came together for the bi-annual tennis championships hosted by the RAF at Halton tennis centre. The competing nations attended the opening ceremony of the games on Monday 3rd September. With the teams drawn into two groups of 3 it was clear that every single match mattered and the quality of all the nations was on display right from the outset.
As the first day of competitive play got underway on Tuesday morning the skies parted and hot bright sunshine beat down on the games creating perfect conditions for the outstanding level of tennis that was on display. With spectators in their hundreds, the RAF’s first match was against the German Air Force. A solid performance from RAF singles number 1 Ali Johnson saw him narrowly lose to his German counterpart and an unfortunate Andy Keeley lost in a tight fought contest after uncharacteristically blazing a forehand long. The new doubles partnership of Chris Gregg and Phil Lawton took on the big serving German pair and with some well-timed returns and outstanding teamwork managed to grind out the first win for the RAF however, the two singles losses left the German’s victorious.
After losing their first match narrowly the RAF team were determined to qualify for the semi-finals by beating a Dutch team containing a former world ranked player, who were the defending champions of the NATO games, 6-4, 6-2 in games, in an extremely entertaining and tactical match.
Having qualified for the semi-finals, the winner of group 1 now had to play the runner up of group 2 and vice-versa. As the Belgians, had won group 2 in some comfort without conceding a single rubber, the RAF knew it was going to be tough. The Germans played the inspired US Air Force Europe team who had come from nowhere to beat the Polish, sending them through to the Semis. As play got underway it was the doubles that went on court first in an unprecedented bit of rescheduling. Caught a little cold due to the change the RAF pair went down an early break and the sparks and teamwork that had been displayed the day before were somewhat lacking. With unconventional volleys and fabulous hands the Belgian team looked in control but after an inspired pep talk from Luke James the RAF pair bounced back and managed to take the first set to a tie break. Fortunately, their form returned and they ploughed through the second set in record time to seal the victory. With one rubber on the board, the two singles players knew that if either of them could find a way to win, it would mean a place in the final, and it was the RAF that came out on top, making history with their best result at a NATO games.
Finals day. The RAF v the Germans in the grudge match of the century. How many times have these great nations clashed in sporting events and this was no different. The crowd murmured and the excitement grew as play got underway, this time with all 3 rubbers happening concurrently. The massive serves of the Germans in the doubles had failed to secure victory in the group stage but could this be any different. With some inspired shot making worthy of place on the pro tour, the RAF took the lead in the tie with a 6-3 first set. As the doubles was played at a far quicker pace than the singles, it became clear that if just one of the RAF singles could win then victory would be theirs! Cpl Christopher Gregg and Fg Off Phillip Lawton. closed out the win shortly afterwards as Phil tucked away a cheeky drop volley to secure the first rubber. Now the pressure came back to the singles players. Having both lost to their opponents in the group stages they knew they would have to take a little more risk and be braver if they were going to emerge victorious. As the mental resilience of both men became apparent, the tense battle raged as huge groundstrokes were traded back and forth. Finally, Andy managed to rip a forehand winner up the line and he roared in jubilation as he became aware of what he had just achieved. With the rest of the team invading the court to celebrate with him, it allowed Johnson to relax and he too eventually won his rubber, giving the RAF a 3-0 win in the final over the Germans.
This was the first time the any RAF team had lifted the trophy of the NATO games and the excitement and relief was felt by everyone. At the closing ceremony, the national anthems played and the speeches and thanks concluded, the teams were able to relax and in particular the RAF, now had a chance to ponder what they had actually achieved. With the trophy presentation and social event happening at Halton House Officers Mess that evening, all the teams came together one last time to enjoy the celebration of sport and culture that this event offers every two years.
Congratulations to the team:
Sgt Luke James (Team Captain), Flt Lt Andrew Keely, Flt Lt Alistair Johnson, Fg Off Phillip Lawton , Cpl Christopher Gregg and SAC Benjamin Simpkin