Will Bayley claimed the men’s class 7 European title in Sheffield today and in doing so assured himself of qualification for Paris next year. Rob Davies fell just short of securing his fifth consecutive men’s class 1 title and there were also silver medals for Grace Williams (women’s class 8) and Jack Hunter-Spivey (men’s class 5) while Martin Perry took bronze in men’s class 6.
The British team has won a total of eight singles medals at these ITTF European Para Table Tennis Championships, with Fliss Pickard (women’s class 6), Bly Twomey (women’s class 7) and Tom Matthews (men’s class 1) all securing bronze medals yesterday.
Men’s class 7
Will Bayley won his semi-final against Kevin Dourbecker from France 3-0 and was happy to come through against an awkward opponent to face the defending European champion and World number two Jean-paul Montanus. The pair last met in the final of the World Championship last year when Bayley put up one of his best performances to win 3-0. He lost the 2015 European final to the Dutchman, but Bayley is a much more complete player now and he came into this match having not lost a men’s class 7 singles since Tokyo.
He started well and took the first set 11-9 but Montanus started to find his range and took the second 11-7 to level at 1-1. At 5-1 in the third the Dutchman seemed to have the upper hand, but Bayley clawed his way back and edged a tense set 12-10 to lead 2-1. The fourth set was nip and tuck and at 9-9 it could have gone either way, but Bayley moved to 10-9 and roared in triumph as an error from Montanus secured him the set 11-9 and the match 3-1.
“That was probably up there with one of the toughest matches of my life,” said Bayley. “I knew that fourth set was crucial - you could see from my emotions afterwards because he gave me hell. When he’s on form like that he is pretty unstoppable and there wasn’t a lot I could do to stop him. Andrew (coach Andrew Rushton) and I were working hard and talking all the time trying to think of a strategy for me to win and luckily we came up with it.
“At 5-1 down in the third I changed tactics and pinned his middle and forehand. Andrew told me, ‘you can’t keep playing to his backhand’, and even though I got into that pattern again towards the end it is hard when you’re under pressure to stop that. My wrist is fixed so I find it really hard when he serves long and fast down the line - I can’t open my wrist and go down the line and he knows that so he is punching it back at me and there is not a lot I can do so I’ve just got to try and hang in there.
“That third set was massive. I felt that he lost a little bit of confidence and he needed to win that but then he came out flying in the next set. He showed me more here than he has shown me in the past, so I need to be up for that. It’s good to have a match like that when I feel that I’m holding on because that motivates me again to make sure I’m even better in Paris because I thought he was brilliant.”
Bayley will now go to Paris next year as the reigning World and European champion with hopes of adding a second Paralympic crown.
“It has always been a dream of mine to hold all three titles at the same time,” he said. “I’ve never done it and I said before the Worlds that I’m going to win all three before I finish, and I’m so determined I can do that. I’m not putting pressure on myself - I genuinely believe I can, and I’ll go for it.
“The crowd were amazing and to see Bly (Twomey) up there and my family and all the GB team that have got amazing results as well. This team is not just about me - it is a strong squad so I’m just proud to be part of that.”
Men’s class 1
Rob Davies came into these championships still trying to get back to the form that won him his fourth European title in 2019. He beat Endre Major in the final four years ago and beat him earlier this week in the group stages but today it was the Hungarian who came out on top as Davies struggled to find his best form. Having lost the first set the Welshman came back to take the next two comfortably but Major is an experienced competitor and as more errors began to creep into Davies’s game he took full advantage, taking the fourth set to level at 2-2 and then securing the gold 11-6 in the deciding set.
“I’m not sure what happened at 2-1 to be honest,” said a disappointed Davies. “I just didn’t play great really. I couldn’t get my thoughts together and I just didn’t perform. I’m really proud of getting to the final again but not of that performance. It wasn’t anything near what I can play like and that is the most disappointing thing. I’ll have to move on – I know I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I knew that before coming here. I’ve got to keep going – three years ago when I was playing consistently against these guys I was a bit ahead of them and I’ve got to get back to that. I know I’ve got work to do and that’s what I intend doing.
“I want to say happy birthday to my Nan who is 80 and thanks to everyone who has supported us to this stage. The Welsh contingent back in Sport Wales have been absolutely amazing for us with the gym work - Jack and Sian - and obviously Neil Robinson. Training with him every day - he is the best person you could knock with. Thank you to the crowd today as well for the support.”
Men’s class 5
Before today’s semi-final Jack Hunter-Spivey had not beaten Ali Ozturk in 14 previous matches with the most recent being at the European Championships in 2019 which the former World and European champion and Tokyo Paralympic medallist from Turkey won 3-2. It went to five close sets again today with Ozturk twice levelling at 1-1 and 2-2 but Hunter-Spivey was not going to be denied this time and he clinched the match 11-9 in the deciding set on his first match point.
“I’m really proud,” said an emotional Hunter-Spivey after the match. “I’ve played Ozturk in every quarterfinal of the European Championships and in the Worlds and always lost to him close and always believed that I could beat him, and I just wanted to stay in the fight. I said to my coach Dave McBeath in the corner, ‘I deserve this, don’t I?’ and finally I’ve done it so I’m proud of myself.”
In the final Hunter-Spivey faced the World number one Valentin Baus and the reigning World, Paralympic and European champion from Germany took the first two sets but Hunter-Spivey won the third 11-7 to keep himself in the match. Baus raced to a 7-0 lead in the fourth set but again Hunter-Spivey fought back and at 8-6 the German took a time out before securing the set 11-7 and the match 3-1.
“My whole ethos - my whole life - is built on never giving up,” said Hunter-Spivey, “and I was trying my best on the table. Baus was the better player today - full credit to him he played really well. I’m just really frustrated that I’ve not managed to come away with the gold but on reflection being in the final of my first major championship I should be very proud of myself. I’ve been battling on and off the table this season as always and I’m really happy that I’ve produced my best table tennis in front of a home crowd. I’m really thankful for the support that we’ve had because it really has got me over the line. I think it gives me a lot of confidence and a lot to look forward to and work on in the training hall and also it’s proved to myself that the hard work in the hall is paying off. Hopefully I’ve put myself in a good position for Paris and I can fully focus now on trying to take another Paralympic medal because after this performance I fully believe that I can do that.”
Women’s class 8
Grace Williams was not born when Thu Kamkasomphou won her first Paralympic title in Sydney in 2000 and the 54-year-old Frenchwoman took the World title last year and was looking to win her ninth European title. She took the first set of their semi-final 11-5 but Williams started to settle and took the next two sets to lead 2-1. At 10-8 in the fourth Williams had two match points that were saved by the World number two and a further match point at 11-10 also came and went as Kamkasomphou used all her experience to edge the set 13-11 and level at 2-2. At 3-0 down in the fifth it looked as if Williams’ chance had gone but coach Matjaz Sercer called a timeout, and it worked as she took the next five points and having lost a further match point at 10-9, she held her nerve and finally clinched the match 12-10 in the fifth.
“I can’t believe it,” she said after the match. “I honestly can’t put it into words how much this tournament has done for me. From losing in the first match in the group and having to beat Lucie (Hautiere) to get through to the quarterfinals I kind of forgot about it and now I’m in the final which is crazy. Going into the semi-final I was happy with a bronze because it exceeded all my expectations I had coming into the tournament. In the fifth set I knew I could do it. At the end she became very passive, and I thought ‘I’m not going to make a mistake, I’m going to let you make the mistake’ and that is what happened.”
In the final against the former World number one Aida Dahlen she made a great start, taking the first set 11-6. However, the two-time European champion and World and Paralympic medallist from Norway has been in these situations many times and she responded by producing her best table tennis and having levelled at 1-1 she took control of the match to win 3-1.
“It’s my first major singles final and I never expected to get this far,” said Williams. “It wasn’t a 3-0 loss – I took the first set and she had to up her game in order to win. In the end she was too far ahead of me and I’m not at that level yet where I can match her. I’m not used to all these finals and semi-finals, so this has given me a lot of confidence going forward into the rest of the season and next year. I’m just happy to have got a medal and got to a final. I didn’t realise I could produce that level so the fact that I’ve produced it at a major championship and a home championship at that has given me so much confidence to go, ‘you know you can do that, you know how to play like that, so let’s go’ which will be good going forward.”
Williams now turns her attention to the doubles where she and Fliss Pickard will attempt to add European gold to the World crown they won last year.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “I love playing with Fliss. This season’s not gone great for us so far but we’ve both done really well in our singles so that will probably give us confidence and I’m really excited to play with her.”
Men’s class 6
Martin Perry lost his semi-final to World number one Peter Rosenmeier from Denmark 3-1 but he made the two-time Paralympic champion, former World champion and reigning European champion produce his best, levelling at 1-1 after Rosenmeier had won a tight first set 11-9. It was the second consecutive major singles medal for the Scotsman following his bronze medal in the World Championship last year.
“Of course, I’m super proud that I’ve got another major championship singles medal,” said Perry. “To come off the back of the World Championship last year I’ve proven to myself and everyone that it wasn’t just a one-time performance - I can play these big championships and play them well. At 1-1 I was thinking, ‘I’m in this match and I have a chance’, but he started playing some amazing shots. I stuck in all the way to the end, and I thought it was really tight. He is the best in the world, but he had to come and play like the best in the world to beat me because I felt that I put in a really good performance. It’s been so amazing playing here in front of the home fans and to have my wife Siobhain here is incredible. I’ve never been able to show her what I do for a living and to do that here is a real privilege for me.”
The tournament continues with the men’s, women’s and mixed doubles events that start tomorrow and conclude on Saturday.