By RJ Mitchell
LAUREN MIDDLETON has ranked her 2024 European Women’s Team Championship finals qualification clinching victory as a career high moment.
The Scotland international kept a cool head as she regained composure after dropping the second set against Estonia’s Catlyn Kruus to claim the decisive success in the third singles at the Ashberon Olympic Sports Complex in Azerbaijan, 21-13, 17-21, 21-11, after 41minutes of enthralling badminton.
Speaking a short time after the Scots completed a three match winning streak over their Group 4 opposition in consecutive 5-0 successes to book their places at next year’s finals in Lodz, Poland, Lauren had no hesitation in admitting this was the perfect end to 2023 for our all-conquering women’s team.
The Scottish champion said: “Every team win is always something special and winning the Scottish championship was great but that was an individual thing and this was for the team and we are a very close group so this was probably as good a moment as I’ve had in getting us over the line and qualified for the finals.
“For everyone it is lovely to end the year on a win, so it is a great way to go out on a real high and everyone can look forward to enjoying their Christmas now.”
The opening match got off to a bit of an anti-climax after the much anticipated clash between Kirsty Gilmour and Estonian No.1 Kristin Kuuba ended after just 6 minutes. Scottish Open runner-up, Kuuba had heavy strapping on a knee and was forced to retire at 2-6 down to Kirsty in the opening stanza.
Next up was Scottish No.2 Rachel Sugden, who once again maintained the rock solid form she has built in Azerbaijan this week to close out a 21- 18, 21-15, over Ramona Uprus in 30 minutes.
All of which left Lauren to secure the decisive victory and rubber stamp the plane tickets for Poland but after taking the opening set 21-13 against Catlyn Kruus, the Estonian lifted her game to claim a 21-17 success in the second set.
Yet with Lauren responding well to coach Bob Blair’s courtside promptings her control was soon restored as she snatched the decisive set with something to spare 21-11 to wrap up qualification after 41-minutes.
Reflecting on this, Lauren said: “To be honest I lost focus in the second set but managed to regain it in the third and thankfully I got the win in the end.
“What I needed to do better was retain my focus through the whole game and not have little blips and follow the game plan a bit better and really open up the court that bit more.”
Lauren was also keen to record her gratitude to the tactical nous of former men’s doubles world badminton championship runner-up Blair who helped guide her home from the back of the court: “It’s always a massive help to have someone like Bob behind the court, he has done it all and he knows what he is talking about and he was a big help to me in getting it back together, so a big thanks to him,” said Lauren.
With victory ensured, there was to be no let-up in the Scots game plan by now slightly deflated Estonian team.
In the top string doubles, Julie MacPherson and Ciara Torrance produced a superbly efficient performance against the dangerous Kati-Kreet Marran and Helina Ruutel to close out a 21-13, 21-12, in 28 minutes.
All of that allowed Rachel Andrew and Eleanor O’Donnell to complete a comprehensive victory in the final doubles match which they duly did in just 27-minutes over Catlyn Kruus and Ramona Uprus 21- 19, 21-14.
While the Estonian second pairing fought tooth and nail in a tight opening set, the Scots steadily intensified the pressure and soon secured their successive straight set victory to complete an unbeaten week!
Looking back on what she believes has been the key factor in a memorable sojourn in Azerbaijan, Lauren had no doubt about highlighting team spirit and she said: “It was a really testing trip and we were pretty tired when we arrived but we are a very close knit group and we all pull for each other and that was a big factor in our success this week.
“Everyone worked hard for each other to lift their spirits back up and get us going for each group match and that was very important to our success this week.”
With overall victory in the tie wrapped up in just 132-minutes, against opposition who were anticipated to prove the main threat to Scottish qualification hopes, this was an impressive triumph by the Scottish Women whatever the metric applied.
So the big question is who does Lauren want to draw in February’s finals?: “We will take any draw and not worry about who it is because we believe in ourselves and feel like we have a very good chance against anyone,” said the Scottish champion.