CHRIS CLARKE BATTLES THROUGH "SUDDEN DEATH" LADDER TO WIN SONOMA-CUTRER WORLD SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP
by Bob Alman
Stephen Mulliner had come out of the qualifying blocks as a heavy favorite, undefeated and clearly ready to win the Sonoma-Cutrer championship for an unprecedented fourth time - whereas Clarke, who had started out as the reigning world champion with the highest expectations for this tournament, had lost two games in his block. Mulliner is known as a good hitter, and the "easy" lawns of Sonoma-Cutrer - with its evenly textured, flat, and nearly perfect surface - were seen as the ideal venue for Mulliner's playing style. But then Cornelius, though losing a single game to Mulliner, won the Medalist Round on points and therefore knocked him down into the elimination ladder. Mulliner barely survived his contest with 19-year-old New Zealander Toby Garrison only to face Clarke in the quarter-finals. With his win over Mulliner, Clarke became the favorite, as he went on to dispatch Tony Stephens of New Zealand 26-0.
Figuring into Clarke's odds as the favorite was the spectacle itself, the noise, the huge crowd, the hoopla - to which he has become accustomed as the reigning world champion; while his opponent, though long acknowledged as one of the world's top players, is not nearly as comfortable at the focus of attention of hundreds of noisy spectators.
And now, in addition to the 1400 spectators and the hubbub, there was referee Richard Hilditch on a five-foot throne in the corner of the court, calling the action over the loudspeakers. His voice-over was expertly done, explaining the plays carefully, tossing out inside jokes to the croquet cognoscenti, always pausing during the players' strokes.
But Cornelius could not help being aware of the significance being placed on her achieving the finals - a first for a woman player. The courtside croquet seers predicted she would be nervous, and the nerves would show in the result.
A FINALS GAME TAILOR-MADE FOR THE SPECTATORS
Nevertheless, the 97-pound English accountant started well. She put her Blue ball on the East boundary. Clarke shot Red to corner 2. Cornelius then hit gently from "B" baulk, roqueting Blue, attacked Red, put it between hoops #1 and #2, and returned to give Blue a rush towards the action. Clarke missed his shot from "A" baulk at the Cornelius position on the East boundary.
Cornlius then played her break to 4-back, with the crowd murmuring their approval - she was definitely the darling of the audience. But inexplicably, she muffed her attempt to cross-wire Red and Yellow at the peg and the made a prudent decision to separate her balls, leaving Black on the East Boundary and putting Blue into corner 2.
Clarke lifted to "B" baulk and this time did not miss his shot to the corner ball. With Red already on a line between hoops #1 and #2, he easily set up a three-ball break and began his run around the court, while the croquet fans asked each other, "Will he peel her out?" Hilditch, from his throne, predicted that he would.
Quickly, it was evident that Clarke intended to execute yet another TPO win - his specialty. But there was one remaining question: Would he peg both balls out, leaving the players with one ball each, both bound for hoop #1?
Again, the answer was "yes." Confident of his ability to out-shoot his opponent in a 2-ball contest, Clarke embarked on what has become his trademark strategy - choosing to play with only two balls instead of three on the triple peel of the opponent.
After Clarke's stake-out of Blue and Yellow, Debbie took her lift to Red on the West Boundary, croqueting Red to pioneer position and setting up at hoop #1, after which Red escaped to corner 4.
At this point, the game was simplified sufficiently for Hilditch to make the most of his opportunity with the spectators. This was to be the most comprehensible game ever in the history of the Sonoma Cutrer World Championship - a crowd-pleaser for perhaps 200 croquet players and another 1200 with only the scantiest knowledge of the game. In most essential respects, the World Championship Final had become a game of one-ball - the most-played version of croquet in the backyards of America.
In the protracted forth-and-back, tuck-and-nip struggle for getting control and engineering a successful two-ball break, both sides missed hit-ins, both sides failed for good position, both sides stuck in wickets or banged off them to give the opponent the innings. But Cornelius seemed to have the greatest difficulty getting adequate hoop-shooting position with long roll shots, and this deficiency alone would spell her doom.
Gradually, predictably, Clarke gained the advantage, and half-way through the struggle, as Clarke repeatedly stopped Cornlius at hoop #4 - her fartherest advance - the crowd, still hoping for a miracle for the underdog, resigned itself to Clarke's victory.
Clarke took the championship 26-16 TPO. No one could say the title was not well-deserved. Having lost two games in his block (one to Cornelius and another to American Phil Arnold), Clarke qualified for the final elimination ladder in third place in his block, which put him on the bottom rung. He had to win six straight to survive this ladder, including the final against Cornelius. He completely shut out four of those opponents, yielding only 28 points in the six games. In TPO wins, he allowed Dawson 12 points and Cornelius 16. Cornelius, as it turned out, did better than any of his other opponents.
In flashing the day's results to the Nottingham Board, assistant tournament directors Rosemarie and John Taylor summed up the sentiments of Sonoma-Cutrer regulars: "We could not have had a better pair of competitors than Chris Clarke and Debbie Cornelius, nor could they have given us a more enjoyable game...even further enhanced by the superb commentary only Richard Hilditch can provide."
In a gracious speech after the game, Stephen Mulliner - who holds the record for winning the championship three times - acknowledged that "it was the most interesting final in the six years I've been here."
This was the fourth straight year in which the "holder" - in this case, Debbie Cornelius, in the three previous years, Californian Wayne Rodoni, Californian Jerry Stark, and South African Reg Bamford - lost in the finals to the survivor of the elimination ladder. It could be argued that in this unique format - the Patmor Draw - although the "holder" is guaranteed a position in the finals, the player who must grind through the "sudden death" ordeal is thus tempered to win the final contest.
EFFECTIVENESS OF "TPO" TACTICS QUESTIONED
Clarke's version of TPO tactics turned out to be perhaps the most noteable feature of the 1997 championship, in the opinion of tournament director Mike Orgill. There were numerous TPO's in the tournament, but only Clarke preferred to stake out BOTH his opponent's forward ball and his own, reducing the balance of the game to a 2-ball contest. This was his invariable choice whenever the opponent had the first break. It failed only against American Phil Arnold in the block, who after initially failing to compete in the two-ball contest made a spectacular 10-hoop recovery to defeat Clarke 26-23 OTP.
Asked about his clear preference for the 2-ball TPO stategy, Clarke again cited the "easy" lawns of Sonoma as the ideal venue for it, noting a few lawns in his native England - Nottingham, Bowdon, Parkstone - which are also good for the strategy. As to whether he chose the strategy as a crowd-pleasing gesture, he was even more emphatic: "I played to win."
Few could argue that this is a good strategy for Clarke, though no one else is doing it as religiously as he. For the more common version of the TPO which leaves three balls in the game, reliable statistical records seem to be lacking. There are reputedly Australians who would argue that the player who stakes out an opponent and continues the game with three balls is more likely than not to lose the game! (Australian player Colin Pickering doubts this, however: "I don't think players would be doing it if it didn't work," he commented.)
For his win, in addition to confirming his world champion status, Clarke received a cash prize of $5,000, while runner-up Cornelius got $1500 - making the Sonoma-Cutrer one of the biggest purse tournaments of the year.
BIGGEST WINNERS ARE CHILDREN'S CHARITIES
But the really big money at the event was all for charity. More than $380,000 was raised for children's charities in the colorful Live Auction that followed the finals game. Make-a-Wish Foundation was the principle beneficiary, along with Magic Moments, the Polly Klaas Foundation, Camp 5 Acres, and Family House. Helping to pay the bills for one of the most successful annual charity events in America were numerous sponsors, including the Bank of American and British Airways.
As the finals day wound to a close, many players and guests stayed until sundown, sipping wine, dancing to the music of a live band, nibbling hors d'oeuvres, hovering over the oyster bar, trying their hand at wicket shooting. Everybody loves this unique event. Most of them - spectators, players, sponsors all - will be back again next year.
[EDITORS CORRECTIONS to earlier Sonoma-Cutrer stories: We commented that Debbie Cornlius is the only woman currently to be ranked in the top 50 players in the world. In fact, Helene Thurston of Western Australia holds a current and well-deserved rank of #42 in the world and is definitely not to be counted out of future international competitions. Moveover, Debbie Cornelius is not the only woman to play in the WCC in recent years. Americans Pattie Dole and Anne Taves have both competed in the 90's.]
FINAL ELIMINATION LADDER - COMPLETE RESULTS
MEDALIST ROUND - COMPLETE RESULTS
BLUE BLOCK - FINAL RESULTS
RED BLOCK - FINAL RESULTS
BLACK BLOCK - FINAL RESULTS
YELLOW BLOCK - FINAL RESULTS
Thanks to Rosemarie and John Taylor and Mike Orgill for making possible these daily reports in CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE.
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