Rio 2016 Paralympic champions Will Bayley (men’s class 7) and Rob Davies (men’s class 1) both produced great performances to take gold in their respective singles events in the Finland Para Open at the Pajulahti Olympic and Paralympic Training Centre today, while Paul Karabardak took silver in men’s class 6.
Men’s class 1
Davies has been slowly working his way back to form after missing Tokyo last year due to injury and was competing in only his fourth competition since winning his fourth consecutive European title in 2019. In his opening group match he edged a tight first set against his old rival Sylvio Keller 15-13 and took the second 11-6. But the 39-year-old European bronze medallist from Switzerland, bronze medallist in the French Para Open this year, came back to level at 2-2 and Davies had to use all his battling qualities to clinch the deciding set 11-8 and the match 3-2.
The Welshman started well against Kim Hakjin, taking the first set 11-8, but the 35-year-old World number 10 from Korea, gold medallist in the 2021 French Para Open and silver medallist in France and Czech Republic this season, came back to take the second 11-4 and went on to take the match 3-1.
“It is up and down at the moment,” said Davies after the match, “but I’m pleased with the way it is going. Sylvio is always a tricky competitor for me and it was good to have that win under my belt. Although losing to the Korean wasn’t what I wanted I’ve got to be realistic about where I am and I’m quite happy with the way I played and everything is feeling a bit more familiar really. I’m enjoying being here and glad I’m back playing.”
Davies went through to the semi-finals as group runner-up and took on Timo Natunen from Finland who had beaten him 3-0 in the Czech Open in June. It was a different story today as Davies started well and edged the first set 15-13. He took the second 11-6 and although Natunen came back to take the third and led 5-0 and 8-5 in the fourth Davies worked his way back into the set and took it 11-8 and the match 3-1.
The final was a rematch against Kim and at 2-0, 10-6 Davies looked to be in control and on his way to the gold medal. But 10-6 became 10-10 and when Kim edged the set 12-10 and took the next 11-8 it came down to a decider. The Korean led 8-4 but Davies showed all his old fight and determination to level at 8-8 and although another two match points were brilliantly saved by Kim the Welshman was not to be denied and he took the final set 12-10 and the gold medal.
“It was a tough match to come through after going 2-0 up,” admitted Davies. “It would have been easier to win 3-0 but I think I probably learnt more from winning 3-2 to be honest. I’m really chuffed with getting more wins this tournament and I’m feeling more like my old self mentally and physically. I just need to keep the energy up and I managed to do that in that last match.
“I think losing the third set was rustiness mentally at that stage and a loss of focus instead of thinking about the next ball but I’m learning again so I’m chuffed. It should have been 3-0 but it is good to come through those tough matches and to lose to him 3-1 in the group and come back and beat him in the final I’m really happy. I know I’ve got a lot of things to work on but it is a stepping stone and I’m chuffed to get the win and the gold medal.
“I’m really pleased with the way it is going in training with Neil (Robinson) back home and Andrew (Rushton) as my new coach in the corner and I’ve got a new caring team so it is going in the right direction. It is not easy when you’ve had a team around you for many years and you change it but we are getting there. I’m playing in Greece in a couple of weeks and looking forward to more match practice which is what I need before the World Championships.”
Men’s class 7
Bayley topped Group 1 with 3-0 wins against 18-year-old Yannick Paredis from Netherlands and 42-year-old Thomas Rosenast from Switzerland, bronze medallist in the 2018 Spanish Open. He then had to battle back from 2-1 down against the tricky Belgian Ben Despineux before taking the match 11-4 in the fifth which took him through to the semi-final against Jonas Hansson from Sweden. He led 2-0 but Hansson came back to edge the third 12-10 before Bayley secured a 3-1 win, 11-7 in the fourth.
The 34-year-old produced his best form in the final against the 24-year-old German Henrik Meyer who had beaten the Rio Paralympic silver medallist Israel Pereira Stroh in the semi-final, never letting his younger opponent get a foothold in the match and losing only 10 points in a 3-0 win.
“I’ve been struggling this tournament,” admitted Bayley, who has also regained the World number one ranking in men’s class 7. “It was difficult because I was expected to win here and I put a lot of pressure on myself. Every tournament is difficult now wherever you go so it is always good to win. I had it in my mind that I was trying to get back to World number one probably too much in the last few months as I haven’t been there since 2019. So I thought ‘just go for it in the final and play the way you can’ and I played my best level in the final so it was really good. Sometimes you can come and win every game 3-0 and you don’t learn anything but I’ve learnt a lot from this tournament because I’ve been in real trouble and it is sometimes good to be in trouble because you learn a lot about yourself and how to deal with the pressure. So it has been really good preparation for the World Championships.
“The last singles match I lost was in Tokyo so I’m really happy with that and it shows that my hunger and desire is still there. After tearing my ACL and coming back I felt that the odds were stacked against me to get back to number one and that gave me the motivation. Obviously now the motivation has changed and it is more about trying to become World champion again as I haven’t won that since 2014 so it would be an unbelievable achievement.
“Being World number one means everything to me as table tennis is my life so I’m really proud but it doesn’t count for much if you don’t win the majors so now I’ve got to back it up and do it when it really counts at the World championships.”
Men’s class 6
Karabardak had to work hard in his opening match against 27-year-old Takuro Chihara from Japan, who had lost to the Welshman in four sets on his debut at the Czech Open in June and showed his potential again here in fighting back from 8-1 down in the fourth to force a deciding set that Karabardak edged 11-9. He dropped a close first set against Aaro Makela from Finland 11-9 but came back to beat the 18-year-old 3-1 and then showed all his character and determination to fight off the challenge of 16-year-old newcomer Krizander Magnussen from Norway, eventually coming through 11-9 in the fifth.
“It’s been a tough day,” said Karabardak, “with three difficult players I was up against it in every match really. There is a saying that you are only as good as your worst day and I always go out to give 100% and if my opponent is going to beat me he is going to have to play really well even if I ‘m not at my best because I am always going took to put balls on the table and make him play.”
In the semi-finals Karabardak enjoyed a more comfortable 3-0 win against Valentin Kneuss from Switzerland and he looked to have taken control of the final against Michael Azulay, taking the first two sets 11-9, 11-6. But the momentum can swing very quickly in table tennis and the Swedish player levelled at 2-2 and although Karabardak led 7-5 in the decider Azulay proved just the stronger and took the match 11-7.
“At 2-0 up I let him back in,” said a disappointed Karabardak. “I needed to see it out a bit earlier but then he got more confident and it was always going to be difficult in the fifth set because he played really well and he just seemed to have an answer to everything I was doing. He has improved a lot and is a really good player so congratulations to him. I think I played well and fought well so it was a good performance and something I can build on and hopefully improve for the World Championships.”
Men’s class 2
Andrew Guy’s first match against Victor Eduardo Reyes Turcio from Mexico, the 27-year-old two-time PanAmerican champion, was closer than the 3-0 score suggests and he was also competitive against the 45-year-old 2018 Asian Para Games team silver medallist Mitsuhiro Matsuo from Japan, despite losing 3-0.
“I felt that I was progressing through each game,” said Guy, “but I didn’t learn quick enough especially in my first match and by the time I worked out what I should have been doing it was too late. In the second match I felt uncomfortable with the pimples on his bat which made the game tricky but it is a learning process and I’ll take what I’ve learnt from these two matches and try and put that into my next tournament. To the untrained eye table tennis is a very simple game but the more you do it the more intricacies there are to the game, and it takes lots of experience to conquer it but it is a challenge and there is so much to learn.”
Men’s class 3
Romain Simon started his international career in fine style with a 3-1 win against the Italian Francesco Baggio, the 2019 Copa Costa Rica team medallist, and was then a comfortable 3-0 winner against fellow debutant Dirk Kretzschmar from Switzerland. That secured him a place in the quarterfinals despite a 3-0 loss in his final group match to Noel Sylvain from France, the 37-year-old World number 20 and European team silver medallist, but he was beaten 3-0 by Yuichiro Kitagawa, the 20-year-old Asian Para Youth Games champion from Japan.
“For my first tournament it went really well,” said Simon. “I’m still learning – learning different styles against different players – and when I started off I was nervous but after the first couple of balls I started to relax and thought ‘I can actually compete against this player’. So I was proud of myself and reassured that I am good enough in this class. The second match was a bit easier because I relaxed at the start and I used that to my advantage in the game. In the third and fourth matches I played against different styles and that is where the learning curve came in. They were slightly better in terms of ability and had different strategies – I was playing against different types of rubbers that I haven’t had much experience against so I’m hoping that the more I train in the future I’ll get used to it and they won’t be able to use that as an advantage against me. The motivation it gives me is to be more ruthless when I play and be more focused on where I play the ball and not just getting it back. I’ve got a lot of shots but I don’t have shots that everyone else plays so if I can add that to my game I can have a wider variety of things to work with.”
Jacob Pritchard Webb had a tough first international match against Francois Geuljans from France, and the silver medallist in the Costa Brava Spanish Open 2021 was too strong in a 3-0 win. The former National Hunt jockey who was paralysed in a fall while racing in France was more competitive in his next two matches despite losing 3-0 to 34-year-old Kevin Kochli from Switzerland and Tsuyoshi Watanabe from Japan, bronze medallist in Indonesia and Spain in 2018.
“It’s been really enjoyable and a major learning curve,” said Pritchard Webb. “After only a year to be here in itself is a win even if there was no winning done on the table. I’ve just got to take away all the experience and everything that I’ve learnt and it has been really good fun. I’ve learnt a lot about myself - coming from a professional sport you’ve got some kind of natural resilience but it has been a while so you don’t know how you’re going to cope. After an accident that I’ve managed to handle really well I wasn’t sure how I’d cope being back in sport but I feel that I’ve stayed positive throughout. There are plenty of areas technically on the table to work on and hopefully there will be lots of improvement in the next year. I just love to win and where I am starting to realise table tennis differs from racing is you are not alone – there is a lot of support from teammates that I’m not really used to but I’m grateful to have the guys supporting me and your teammates can become good friends and I think it is something I’ll definitely enjoy. Now that I’m classified I’m looking forward to getting back in the training hall with a bit more purpose and hopefully everyone else is looking forward to working with me now knowing where we can go forward and the bar will be set very high.”
Men’s class 7
In Group 2 Alex Bland began with a confident 3-0 win against 17-year-old Styrbjorn Ekengren from Sweden and was far from disgraced in a 3-0 loss to the Rio 2016 Paralympic silver medallist and World number 11 Israel Pereira Stroh from Brazil. He needed to beat Tong Chi Ming from Hong Kong China to progress from the group but never really got into the match against the 20-year-old Asian Para Youth Games champion and was beaten 3-0.
“Israel is a quality player and he was too good on the day,” said Bland. “I can improve but he is always going to win some points outright because his serves are so good. I can take a lot from the match – he has been there and done it and you can see how he conducts himself. Tong really surprised me to be honest – he is ranked lower than me but it didn’t seem like that today. He played better than me and deserved the win - he was too explosive for me and I couldn’t cope with his speed. I struggled with his style but maybe he liked the way I played against him as I couldn’t really hurt him very much. I’ve either got to get stronger and put him under pressure or absorb his game much more so I’ve got two options I can work on and that is what I’ll try to do going forward. I know I can do it as I’ve done it before but I had a break earlier this year and I’ve not quite found that level in my game yet since I’ve come back.”
In Group 3 Theo Bishop was disappointed to lose 3-0 to Chen Silu from Hong Kong China, the 57-year-old former Asian Championships bronze medallist, and was then beaten in three close sets by Dustin Eier from Netherlands, the 27-year-old Spanish Open silver medallist in 2018. The teenager from Rossendale did not progress from his group but finished on a high with a great performance to beat the World number 20 Jonas Hansson 3-2, holding his nerve after the Swedish player had come from 2-0 down to level at 2-2.
“Chen is a strong player but I was disappointed because I thought I could have shown a bit more of myself,” said Bishop. “I’ve played Eier quite a bit in the past and usually come out on top but I didn’t feel that I was playing great today in those first two matches. It is tough to win at the best of times but when you are not playing well it is very difficult but credit to him he played well and he beat me. I had a chat with Matjaz (coach Matjaz Sercer) before the last match and said that although I couldn’t go through I was going to leave it all on the table and fight as much as I could so that’s what I did and it was a really good win for me. It is nerve-wracking going into a fifth set but I love those moments. It is what I play for - the tight matches, deuce in the fifth, the buzz and adrenalin and going into the fifth I thought ‘if I am nervous he is going to be just as nervous’. I can take a lot of confidence from that win – all I wanted to get from this tournament was just to play my best table tennis and show people what I can do and I feel that I accomplished that in that match so I’m happy.”
Men’s class 9
Joe Crouse could not have had a tougher start to his first senior international tournament than a match against the World number one Laurens Devos from Belgium, and the World, Paralympic and European champion was a 3-0 winner. The 19-year-old from Truro played really well to beat Hsieh Tsung Ying from Chinese Taipei 3-2 after the Asian Para Youth Games team gold medallist had levelled the match at 2-2 but did not progress after a 3-0 loss to Hayuma Abe from Japan, the 23-year-old Asian Para Youth Games champion.
“I really came here for the experience,” said Crouse, “and to play the world number one is the best you can possibly get from a tournament like this. I could have done a bit better and it would have been nice to have returned some of his serves but I was quite happy with how I played against him. It was bit daunting when Hsieh came back to 2-2 after I went 2-0 up but I think I adapted quite well even if it took me a couple of sets to do that but I did in the end and the last set was quite comfortable. Abe was really fast and he outplayed me. Again I think I could have done a bit better - I wasn’t fussed what the result was but it would have been nice to get into the rallies more often and there were a few good points but not as consistently as in the second match so I was disappointed with that. This is my first tournament at this level and I’ve never played with so many high level players so it has definitely been a learning curve.”
Women’s class 8
In the round robin event Grace Williams lost 3-0 to Lucie Hautiere from France, the 21-year-old World number 11 and Egypt Para Open champion, and 3-0 to Aida Dahlen from Norway, the 31-year-old World number two and World and Paralympic bronze medallist. She fought back really well against 18-year-old newcomer Nina Reck to level at 2-2 and led 8-6 in the deciding set before the German secured the match 11-8 but finished with a 3-0 win against another German newcomer 15-year-old Maike Bannuscher.
“I think my nerves got the better of me at 8-8 against Reck,” said Williams. “I can learn from that – it’s not about my skills it’s about my mentality and how do I take my nerves into something I can use in the match rather than shy away from it. The margins are really small and one minor mistake can mean you lose the point. From a tactical perspective I went from 2-0 down to 2-2 and that for me was a major difference because it showed me that I channelled my fear and got going. At 8-8 in the fifth set it was difficult for me to compose myself and think I can get into this but I’ll work with our team psychologist to figure out how to channel that into positive energy rather than negative energy.”