A special relationship
The joy on the faces of Fliss Pickard and Grace Williams when they beat the number one seeds from Germany, Stephanie Grebe and Juliane Wolf, to take gold in the women’s class 14 doubles at the World Championships last month was mirrored by a certain amount of disbelief at what they had achieved.
“Nobody expected me and Fliss to be World champions at this stage of our doubles partnership,” said Williams, “and so early in my career especially I didn’t expect it.”
“To win a world title is just incredible especially with a partner like Grace,” agreed Pickard. “We’ve come so far from where we started at the beginning of the year, even from where we were at the Greek Open a few weeks ago.”
They secured the gold on their third match point in the final but the pivotal moment in their success came in the quarterfinal against the Romanian pair of Camelia Ciripan and Gabriela Constantin when Williams showed visible signs of frustration after making several errors. Just when it appeared that the inexperience of the Welsh teenager would hand the advantage to their opponents she suddenly emerged from her chrysalis of nerves and became a different player.
“I can remember that moment,” said Williams, “and I can’t explain how I got myself out of the frustration and into a mindset where I could make shots but I think part of that is down to Fliss and the fact that I know she is there and no matter the outcome of the match she is going to be proud of me. She is not going to be disappointed in me and I love that about our relationship - how we can lose as a team and win as a team and we are both happy about how we played in a match. She supports me and I support her so that’s a really good way of thinking about it.”
Pickard also has clear memories of that moment when their partnership was transformed.
“Grace had missed a few balls and it was almost as if she didn’t believe she could get anything on the table. She kept saying to me, ‘what do you want me to do’ and I just said, ‘I want you to do whatever you would like to do that makes you feel comfortable – mistake or no mistake I’m not bothered as long as you’re happy so let’s just enjoy playing’. Because there was no pressure on her to try and do things she felt uncomfortable with she then relaxed and everything fell into place.”
They went on to win the match 3-2 and there was no fluke about either their 3-0 win in the semi-final against the number two seeds from France, Morgen Caillaud and Thu Kamkasomphou, or the 3-0 win in the final against Grebe and Wolf.
Having sown the seeds of their partnership in team events last year their doubles career was never expected to flourish quite so soon but the World title owes as much to their relationship off the table as it does to their performance on the table.
“It is so important to have that relationship off the table when you are playing doubles,” said Williams, “as you’ve got to trust your partner and believe that they can do it as well as you can. Fliss was already in the team when I started and she was the only standing female athlete so I’ve always looked up to her. The fact that I can now call her a really close friend is great for me because she has been there for me throughout it all and the fact that we have achieved this together is just amazing. I can’t really put my finger on what makes our relationship so strong but we’ve grown close because at many tournaments we share a room so we’ve got that relationship. We have just clicked and I’m very grateful for the friendship I have with her.”
“Obviously knowing each other and having that friendship off the table helps massively,” agreed Pickard, “and being able to talk to each other and know when each other needs certain things during a match. I think communication was key to us winning the World title and it is something we can use going forward. By the end we were really tight as a doubles pair and that definitely comes from off the table not just on the table.”
For Pickard, success in doubles is a tribute to her determination and her growing maturity as an athlete.
“Doubles has been a huge challenge for me,” she admits, “not just physically as it is pretty obvious that it doesn’t suit my disability but having to communicate with different personalities is something I struggle with. But to see how far I’ve come and to get bronze in the mixed with Billy (Shilton) and win the world title with Grace is just incredible. If I can do that I think I can take on any challenge and now I’ve just got to believe in myself as a player and a person.”
Pickard has experienced many ups and downs in her career and is keen to use her experience to help other young players as well as Williams.
“I still have ups and downs,” she said, “but I think having that experience has allowed me to talk to players coming through – not just Grace but other Pathway players as well – to put that arm round them and say everything will be OK. I’ve used that well with Grace and I hope people can see how much I’m trying to help people on and off the table and not just me as an athlete. I think it gives me strength seeing the help and support I can give others as well.”
Williams admits that being World champion feels “surreal” but the 19-year-old student still has her feet firmly on the ground.
“Doubles has been great for me,” she said, “because I can have that person to reassure me in what I do on the table. If I make a mistake or I do the right thing but I’m not executing it properly I’ve got that person right there to help me. Winning the World title has given me belief and proof that I can do it but I still have a long way to go and a lot of things to work through and it will take time and effort from me. Being a student as well it has also shown me that I can do both at the same time and have great outcomes which has given me a lot of motivation.
“Yes, I’m a World champion but I’m still the same person, still a young girl from a small village in Wales. The fact that I’ve been to the Commonwealth Games, I’m World champion and halfway through my degree is a weird thing to say but it is true and I can’t believe it. It has been a massive struggle and juggling two things at once is tough and there have been hard times but I’ve done it and there is still a lot more to do.”
Williams on Pickard:
“I feel that Fliss brings reassurance. I know if I make a shot that probably isn’t the right shot or I make a mistake but it is the right shot to try I know she is not going to be angry with me. She’ll support me and she gives me that reassurance to know that if I am feeling anxious or nervous on the table she is there. All I have to do is tell her how I’m feeling and she will help me get through it and understand why I’m feeling like that and how to work through it in the match.”
Pickard on Williams:
“For me when Grace smiles and enjoys herself she is actually a very confident player. She brings an element of naivety which helps because she’s not thinking too much whereas I’m a thinker so we complement one another. She plays with a sense of freedom whereas I can overthink things and having that to complement each other is massive. I think you need that balance and it is working for us but we’re only about 5% of where we can be.”