Rio 2016 Paralympic champion Will Bayley and reigning World and Commonwealth champion Ross Wilson head a strong squad of 14 British athletes for the Slovenia Para Open in Lasko next week (May 11-14) which also includes fellow Tokyo medallists Jack Hunter-Spivey, Paul Karabardak, Tom Matthews, Aaron McKibbin and Billy Shilton, as well as 2022 Costa Brava Spanish Open champions Joshua Stacey and Fliss Pickard and two-time European team champion Martin Perry.
Bayley came close to retaining his Paralympic title in Tokyo, losing in the final to the Chinese World number one Yan Shuo in his first tournament for two years, and is looking forward to playing more tournaments this year in a bid to reclaim the World number one ranking in men’s class 7.
“It is really important for me to be playing lots of matches to be match sharp,” said Bayley, “because you can only do so much training and there is nothing like competing to see where your level is at and try and improve. I played some of my best stuff in Tokyo - probably better than I did in Rio - but I didn’t take my opportunities in the final of the singles or the team event. I was playing well enough to potentially win those matches, but I didn’t although overall it was a good performance.
“Getting back to World number one gives me a goal. I think there is a good rivalry between me and Yan and I think I can really push him this year. It is good to have someone that I can aim at – and JP (European champion Jean-paul Montanus from Netherlands). It is great for class 7 to have three or four top players who can all beat each other - it is really exciting to be part of that.”
Wilson started this season by taking gold in the men’s class 8 singles at the Costa Brava Spanish Open in March where he also combined with men’s class 9 gold medallist Stacey to win gold in the men’s MS18 doubles, beating McKibbin and Shilton in an all-British final. Hunter-Spivey also made a winning seasonal debut at the Egypt Open last month, taking gold in the men’s class 5 singles and demonstrating the belief that taking his first major medal in Tokyo has given him by coming through tough five-set matches in both the semi-final and final.
Welshmen Karabardak and Matthews are both making their first appearances since Tokyo, where Karabardak took bronze in the men’s class 6 singles and silver in the men’s class 6-7 team event with Bayley – his first Paralympic medals in his fourth Paralympic Games. Matthews was competing in his first Paralympic Games in Tokyo and returned with a bronze medal from the men’s class 1 singles.
“I feel that I have improved quite a bit since Tokyo,” said Matthews, who has had to overcome a series of injuries since taking bronze in the World Championships in 2018. “The coaches say I’m looking really good on the table which is giving me confidence. I’ve been working hard with the coaches to make improvements to my game so we’ll see how it goes in Slovenia. Physically I feel a lot stronger than I was in Tokyo so I’m really looking forward to this year and the challenge of the World Championships but I’m focusing on Slovenia first.”
The British squad is completed by Pathway athletes Theo Bishop, Andrew Guy, Grace Williams and Lee York.
The full list of British athletes competing in Slovenia is:
Will Bayley, 34, - Tunbridge Wells/Brighton (class 7)
Theo Bishop, 18 - Bury (class 7)
Jack Hunter-Spivey, 26 - Liverpool/Sheffield (class 5)
Andrew Guy, 37 - Bovey Tracey (class 2)
Paul Karabardak, 36 - Swansea (class 6)
Tom Matthews, 29 - Aberdare (class 1)
Aaron McKibbin, 30 - London/Epsom (class 8)
Martin Perry, 27 - Paisley/Dumbarton (class 6)
Fliss Pickard, 27 - Burnley/Sheffield (class 6)
Billy Shilton, 23 - Stonehouse/Sheffield (class 8)
Joshua Stacey, 22 - Cardiff/Sheffield (class 9)
Grace Williams, 19 - Wrexham/Sheffield (class 8)
Ross Wilson, 26 - Minster/Sheffield (class 8)
Lee York, 33 - Wakefield (class 4)