Will Bayley produced a brilliant performance to take gold in the men’s class 7 singles at the World Para Table Tennis Championships in Andalucia today, beating the European champion and World number two Jean-paul Montanus from Netherlands 3-0. Rob Davies (men’s class 1), Aaron McKibbin and Ross Wilson (men’s class 8) will all take bronze after losing their semi-finals while Joshua Stacey goes for gold in men’s class 9 later this evening.
Montanus defeated Bayley in the European Championship final in 2013 and 2015 and he took the first three points today but after that it was all Bayley. He took the first set 11-6 and the second 11-7 with clever play that either produced winners or drew errors from an increasingly frustrated Montanus. At 5-3 in the third the Dutch coach called a timeout, but it didn’t halt Bayley’s momentum and a backhand error from Montanus gave him four match points. He only needed one and as a forehand from the Dutchman flew long Bayley held his arms aloft in triumph before sharing a hug with his sporting opponent.
“I was so focused,” said Bayley, who regained the title he won in 2014. “I just knew that when you’re playing someone like JP you have to be on top form and at your very best, so I knew I had to be totally focused in every single point to win and that was probably one of my best performances. I had to make it a tactical battle to have a chance against him and I was tactically good today and it was a great win for me.
“Being World champion again means everything to me. I train really hard and work hard every day – everyone does – and anyone who knows me knows I love this sport. It means everything to me - more than just table tennis it is about my mindset and my attitude. It’s about trying to inspire people - my kids for example - to never give up on your dream and that means a lot to me. This shows if you work hard, never give up and believe in yourself you can achieve anything and that is why it was important to me to do that today.”
After overcoming a serious knee injury and taking silver in Tokyo last year Bayley declared that he would be back to try and regain his Paralympic title in Paris and he has not lost a singles match since then.
“I’ve got to take it one step at a time,” he said. “I’ve got the European championships next year - that is a big one and there are so many good players. My first match here was probably my hardest match against number 20 in the world so anything can happen. But I just feel like I’ve got a good all-round game and I’m ready to take on anyone in Paris. I’m ready for that challenge and I can’t wait.”
McKibbin showed great character to come through a five-set quarterfinal against the World number three and Paralympic bronze medallist Maksym Nikolenko. After a slow start he won a great rally to take the second set 14-12 and level at 1-1 and came back again to level at 2-2 after Nikolenko had taken the third set 11-7. The fifth set was nip and tuck all the way with the Ukrainian given a red card for time wasting but as McKibbin produced a forehand winner to take the set 12-10 on his second match point he threw his bat into the air and ran to his corner to hug coach Mat Kenny.
He faced another Ukrainian in the semi-final in World number one Viktor Didukh, who had won all 17 of their previous meetings. McKibbin had taken him close on several occasions and having lost the first set he fought back magnificently from 10-6 down to edge the second 14-12 and then led 7-1 in the third. But Didukh used all his experience to work his way back into the match and took the third 11-9 before securing his place in the final 11-7 in the fourth.
“I felt really good in the game,” said McKibbin, “and I was matching him for quality but that is what he is good at - he is smart. I don’t think I changed the way I played but I think he started to put a lot less spin on the ball and I was struggling with that as at the beginning of the match he was playing with heavy top spin and it was sitting up well for me to attack. I don’t think I played bad from 7-1 he just kept getting that extra ball back.”
Although disappointed to lose McKibbin can be justifiably proud of taking his first major singles medal.
“It’s tough to take,” he admitted. “I felt my level here has been good enough to win the tournament so I’m disappointed but I’m sure by tomorrow I’ll be elated with the bronze as it’s a great achievement. My game against Nikolenko was far from easy and I’m really proud of how mentally strong I’ve been. I was down in the second set and won that by keeping my belief and focus and I know I’m in the mix now and I want to do it again in Paris.”
Wilson was defending his title here and started well in his quarterfinal against the Rio 2016 Paralympic silver medallist Andras Csonka, taking the first two sets 11-5 11-6 and although the Hungarian came back to take the third 11-9 Wilson took the fourth 11-8 with his fourth match point.
In the semi-final he took on Thomas Bouvais, the World and Paralympic team medallist from France, and once again he made a good start by winning the first set 11-5. Wilson led 7-5 in the second when the French coach called a timeout and Bouvais went on to edge the set 12-10 but Wilson responded by taking the third 11-4 to lead 2-1. Back came Bouvais to take the fourth 11-7 and it came down to a deciding set. From 5-1 down Wilson battled back to level at 6-6 and from that point it was an even battle with great rallies that had the crowd on the edge of their seats. Match points for both players were saved until at 15-14 to Bouvais another great rally ended in Wilson sending a backhand long to the delight of his opponent and the vocal French supporters.
It was a match that neither player deserved to lose and a tough loss for Wilson to take although he too can be very proud of taking World championship bronze.
“He started feeding off the crowd when he got back into the game,” said a dejected Wilson, “but that is part of the sport and it is just one of those things. Maybe it just wasn’t my day today. I tried my best and that is all you can do. I’m really disappointed right now as obviously I want more and I felt like I’ve been playing well in the last couple of rounds. It was just one of those games where you do a couple of things wrong and then you’re in a big fight and maybe I should have done better at 2-1. I know a bronze is a good achievement and I’m proud of myself for that but at the end of the day it wasn’t what I wanted. I felt like I could have done more but that is life. You can’t always expect to have more and do better and today I’m going to have to settle for the bronze and hats off to him because he played really well.”
Davies and Joo Young Dae last met in the Paralympic final in Rio where the Welshman won in four sets. He was unable to defend his title in Tokyo due to injury and the Korean is now Paralympic champion and World number one while Davies is still working his way back to his best form after two years out through injury and today it was Joo who proved the stronger in a 3-0 win. Having come into these World Championships with little expectation, Davies can take confidence from a bronze medal as he continues to build towards Paris in 2024.
“It didn’t go so well,” said Davies, “but you can’t be 60% and play against someone like Joo and it showed today. At the moment it is probably my level and I’m really surprised to have got through to the semi-final and very chuffed to have got the bronze medal and beaten the two guys I did to be honest. So it is coming together and I’m just getting more used to playing matches again which is a positive. It was always going to be about next year for me really because I’ve only been back to full fitness for about two months so I’m happy with where I am and I can’t wait for next year now.”