The 2018 Champion’s League kicks off with a vengeance this Friday (23rd February) at the Swedish Open, but what can we expect in the 2018 edition? iPro London begin as the reigning champions, but they face seven rival teams eager to end their run. Before the fixtures were revealed, I spoke to all the captains, to get their views on what they have learned since 2017, their squads and who they think will be the champions in 2018.
Learning from Experience
“You need plans A, B, C and also D, that is what I have learned” says iPro London captain Duncan Stahl when he considers the draft. In fact, among our returning captains there was agreement that they have learned the experience of the 2017 draft, but mainly the experience of the Champion’s League itself. Copenhagen captain, Morten Jaksland identifies that the draft is only half of a captain’s job, “There are many “surprise” results in this format, but I think that many of these surprises are actually good captaincy, selecting the right line up”. For Lukas Windischberger, captain of the C&C Racketlonshop Austria side, it is the playing that is crucial. “It is really physical to play these team matches, 3 or even 4 in a day, so I see having a substitute as crucial to a good line up”. It was a similar idea for Malta Magic captain, Kresten Hougaard, who went into the draw with a focus on Germany, “I wanted and got a strong team in Germany, so long as we sneak points in Sweden, we can be title contenders”. It isn’t just the experience of captaincy that is helping our returning captains, but also their support networks, Amke Fischer delighted that older members of the Berlin Berghain Boasters family were on hand to lend their views. “It is so much easier for a captain now that we have a support compared to last year, Thorsten (Lentfer), Conny (Rademacher) and Jack (Bishop), instead of being on my own!”. For another captain, the focus was simply on building the team in the right image, King of Rackets captain, Lieselot de Bleeckere was focussed on her key idea, team spirit. “I only looked for players who would ‘fit’ in our side and its attitude”. Obviously, two of our captains, Anna-Klara Ahlmer of the Swedish Vikings and Benny Hampl of the Swiss Army Knives, had no prior experience coming into the draft. Despite this neither captain was just guessing, both had plans, Benny focussing on stamina and a Racketlon specific quality, “the love of Racketlon, and therefore that ability to keeping fighting no matter what”.
Making their Picks!
Experience and planning are all very well, however, there are 7 other unpredictable factors in the draw, namely your fellow captains! With captains also able to retain players from 2017, the balance of what was required by each team was different in comparison to the 2017 draft. Perhaps the main headache for captains was the availability of their retained players, the Swiss Army Knives and KoR both needed players available for both legs and that impacted on their draw choices. Benny Hampl was however pleased with what he came out with, “Selecting Ed (Harvey) and Stine (Jacobson) means I have achieved my aims of a strong player for both events and an excellent lady for Sweden”. It was easier for KoR captain Lieselot, she stuck close to home and went in for her brother, Pieter. “I was happy I could select my brother for our home town team, and he is pleased to, not that he will admit it!”. For most of our captains however, it was simply a case of selecting the best players they could for each leg, however some were posed with some new problems, Morten retained the services of Zuzka Severinova for Copenhagen, however with her unavailable in Sweden, he did face the new headache of selecting a lady for Sweden, “thankfully, I had the possibility to select Jo Shelley”. Across our captains, none comes across as more pleased with his or her work than Lukas, delighted to have his squad of fellow Austrians, “I get to see these players regularly and we can build a real team spirit”. Lukas was also the captain who has maybe gambled on the form of the returning Thorsten Deck, “I’ve known Thorsten a long time and I am delighted to see him back in Racketlon and in my side”. For Malta Magic, Kresten was the cat who got the cream, “(Jörn) Sültrop was an absolute steal in the draft, especially as I was picking seventh, a mistake from some of my fellow captains”. Beyond his German pick, the Malta based Dane is taking a very Danish side to Sweden, and is very confident with it. Amke left delighted with her picks, principally opening pick Elmar Schaub, “Elmar was my favourite choice, great racket skills and a team player who fits perfectly into the BBB family”. With her blank slate, Anna-Klara is setting a tone for the Swedish Vikings, “I focussed on creating a team with young and upcoming players”. Finally, the ever sanguine, iPro London captain, Duncan simply mused “We are going to be a nightmare to play against”.
But who is going to win?
No captain felt they had missed out in the draw, but with what they had assembled where did they see their team finishing? Despite them all being pleased with their draft work, none of them are able to suggest anything other than an iPro London victory and a successful title defence in 2018. But can iPro London handle this pressure? More intriguingly, 5 captains (Amke, Kresten, Lieselot, Lukas and Morten) all see their side being strong enough to finish on the podium. Given they all see iPro London winning, that leaves 5 teams scrapping for 2 spots in what could be incredible for this season’s Champion’s League and the second leg in Germany. In the Most Valued Player competition, few captains can see past Natalie Paul also retaining her title from 2017, although Lieselot expects her brother to perform “or he is out again for next year”. There is pressure everywhere you look at the 2018 Champion’s League!
Now, the talking is all over and the action shifts to the courts in Sweden, this Friday, 23rd February. Will iPro London get off to the flying start they need to defend their title or will they be left clutching at thin air? To see how it is going keep an eye on the FIR Facebook page for updates throughout the day of competition and on Racketlon.net for a report on events next week.