STEPHEN Mulliner, a member of the Guildford & Godalming Croquet Club and twice Town Mayor of Haslemere, rolled back the years to win the Association Croquet World Championship in Florida after a series of dogged and determined comebacks in the knockout rounds.
In a career spanning 40 years, Mulliner has competed in the top flight of world croquet for much of that time and has represented England and Great Britain on numerous occasions, excelling in both main forms of the game – association croquet and golf croquet. He is also secretary-general of the World Croquet Federation.
But for all his pedigree, Mulliner had never won a croquet world individual title, his best being runner-up in 1997 and 2008.
Eighty competitors began the competition at the US National Croquet Centre, West Palm Beach, Florida and these were whittled down to 32 after three days of block play. Thereafter, it was knockout and Mulliner did not have an easy draw, being seeded in the same half as Reg Bamford, the four-time world champion from South Africa and favourite for the title, and scheduled to meet him in the semi-finals.
Sure enough, the two progressed to the semis and a match of five games in one day. Bamford, having sailed through the earlier knockout rounds without dropping a game, won the first two and seemed firmly on course for the final.
In a sensational turn-round, though, Mulliner reeled off the next three in quick succession to shock Bamford, the crowd, and croquet players from all over the world watching live video streaming or reading live text commentary. “One of my better matches,” he remarked laconically to a supporter.
In the other semi, David Maloof, a fast-rising USA player, beat David Maugham of England 3-1.
The final would result in the oldest ever world champion, since both players are 62 and a total contrast to the last World Championship final in 2013 when 20-year old Robert Fletcher (Australia) beat 25-year old Paddy Chapman (New Zealand).
In temperatures rising to 30C, the final was tense and at times scrappy, each player giving opportunities to the other. At lunch, Maloof led 2-0, but as the afternoon wore on, Mulliner clawed his way back and at just short of 7pm, with dusk approaching, he levelled the match at 2-2.
The final game had to be moved to an adjacent floodlit court and the match changed character completely. The Haslemere man took charge almost immediately, gave his opponent few chances, and won the game, the match and the title.
It had been the longest final in the history of the championships, having started at 9am and finished under lights at 8.30pm. But it will be remembered particularly for Stephen Mulliner’s fighting spirit and absolute refusal to be beaten.