The British team made a great start to the Andalucia 2022 World Para Table Tennis Championships at the Granada City Sports Centre in Spain today with Fliss Pickard and Grace Williams (women’s class 14), Paul Karabardak and Billy Shilton (men’s class 14), Ross Wilson and Joshua Stacey (men’s class 18) and Billy Shilton and Fliss Pickard (mixed class 14) all guaranteed at least a bronze medal after reaching the semi-finals of their respective events.
Fliss Pickard and Grace Williams faced the gold medallists in the Egypt Open earlier this year Camelia Ciripan and Gabriela Constantin from Romania in their WD14 quarterfinal and they showed great fight and determination to come through a very tight match in five sets. Having edged the first set 13-11 they lost the second 14-12 and the third 13-11 but took the fourth 11-5 to level at 2-2. At 8-6 it looked as if the experience of the Romanian pair would be decisive but Pickard and Williams were not to be denied and a run of five points gave them the set 11-8 and the match 3-2.
“I think we worked really well together,” said a delighted Pickard, “and communication is something I’ve been working really hard on because it’s not something that comes naturally to me. But we proved that we can do it and the sky’s the limit now. We can only get better and I believe that was us at our worst and this is the start of a fantastic journey with Grace who is a superstar.”
“I love playing with Fliss” said 19-year-old Williams, “I get so much from her and I’m so excited for the future. If this is us now what can we achieve in the future? It feels surreal to have a medal and I don’t think it has sunk in yet.”
In MD14 Billy Shilton and Paul Karabardak had a bye into the quarterfinals where they faced Matteo Parenzan, men’s class 6 singles champion in Slovenia and Greece this season, and Raimondo Alecci from Italy. They had to fight back from 2-1 down but did so superbly to take the fourth set 11-4 and the deciding set 11-6 and book their place in the semi-final against the former World team champions from Spain Alvaro Valera and Jordi Morales.
“It was a difficult style to play against,” said Shilton, “as they both use pimples on both sides so it was a bit of a challenge at the start but we had a good conversation with Rushy (coach Andrew Rushton) in the corner and just changed the tactics a bit. I thought Paul played brilliantly and I’m really happy. We’re a new partnership and we’re learning something new about each other every day so the more we play together the more confident we get and hopefully we can carry it on and win the tournament.”
“I’m really pleased,” said Karabardak, “because I think they played their top level and really brought it. They are tricky players and we had to work hard and get the ball on the table as they were on top of us for the first two sets. So to come back the way we did was really good and that can give us a lot of confidence for the rest of the competition now. A medal is fantastic but we’re going to try really hard to do better than the bronze and I think we’ve got a great chance to do that.”
Ross Wilson and Joshua Stacey began their MD18 competition with a 3-0 win against the Australian pair of Chinese-born former class 9 World and Paralympic champion Ma Lin and two-time Oceania champion Nathan Pellissier, who were Paralympic team silver medallists in Tokyo. After coming through a tense first set 20-18, finally clinching it on their 13th set point, they never looked in danger of losing and took the next two sets 11-7 11-9 to complete a 3-0 win.
“To be honest I don’t think either of us were panicking too much in the first set,” said Stacey afterwards, “because the opportunities were always there. It was more a case of first match and getting a feel for the tables and the ball and the surroundings and we didn’t quite take them as well as we would normally do but winning that first set definitely gave us a foothold in the game and they weren’t able to claw it back.”
“The first match is always a bit of a nervy one getting used to the conditions in the hall in a competitive match,” said Wilson. “It is really nice to be back out there playing again in a major championship and I’m looking forward to the rest of the competition and our next match.”
In the quarterfinals they took on the Hungarian partnership of class 8 Rio 2016 Paralympic silver medallist Andras Csonka and class 9 former European medallist Dezso Bereczki and were always in control, taking the match 3-0 for the loss of only 10 points.
“We just kept to basics really,” said Wilson, “and focused on keeping it tight and then getting in when we had the chances and I think we executed that well. We’ve got used to the match conditions and the hall a bit more now and I think our partnership is developing really well. We work a lot with each other back in Sheffield and Josh is such a good player. I know how he plays and it is a case of working together and that is what doubles is all about. How well we work together will be how good we are rather than how good we both are as individuals.”
“I feel that our communication is quite minimal,” said Stacey, “but that is because of the understanding we have of each other’s games and especially in a game like that it really showed. I think we are a good partnership and we can do big things in the future. Bronze is not satisfying our appetite so we’re looking forward to tomorrow and doing the same to whoever we play.”
In the mixed doubles XD10 Jack Hunter-Spivey and Sue Bailey recovered from a shaky start to beat the Japanese pair of Asian Para Youth Games champion Genki Saito and four-time Paralympian Kimie Bessho 3-1 to progress to the quarterfinals tomorrow where they will play the top seeds from Korea Kim Young-gun and Jung Young-A.
“My first game at any tournament I’m always so nervous,” admitted Bailey, “so it was very tentative to start with but then we got into it and were playing our game and dominating the shots. Jack did some brilliant serves and we got a lot better and gelled then throughout the next three games so I’m really pleased with that.”
“I’m not used to playing doubles and I’m really enjoying the experience,” said Hunter-Spivey. “Sue and me played really well in that match and I’m looking forward to the next round now. The production in the arena is amazing and it really feels like a top-level tournament. Just to play in the arena feels great and I can’t wait to play some more.”
Shilton and Pickard had a bye into the XD14 quarterfinals where they took on Tokyo class 7 bronze medallist Maksym Chudzicki and former World champion Katarzyna Marszal from Poland. They won the first set 11-7 but the Polish pair came back to level and then led 9-5 in the third. At 9-8 Poland took a time out but could not prevent Shilton and Pickard taking the set 11-9 and a 2-1 lead. The British pair were down again in the fourth and showed great resilience and character to fight back and edge the set 14-12 and complete a 3-1 win with their fourth match point.
“I’m obviously really happy with the win,” said Shilton, “and credit to Fliss as she played amazingly. I think the way we spoke to each other during the match was testament to everything we’ve been doing in Sheffield and all the hard work we’ve put in. The full focus is on tomorrow now - I’m not satisfied with just winning that match today I think we’ve got a great chance tomorrow and we’ll go for it and see what happens.”
“The way we communicated today was down to all the hard work we’ve been doing in Sheffield,” agreed Pickard, “and I really feel we are getting stronger. We were down in most of the sets and we found a way to grind it out and win. As Billy said we’re not satisfied with bronze, we’re ready to give a big fight tomorrow against a very strong Dutch pair.”
Stacey and Williams also had a bye into the quarterfinals of XD17 and lost 3-0 to the very experienced Polish pair of Rio 2016 Paralympic bronze medallist Piotr Grudzien and class 9 World number two Karolina Pek from Poland.
“I think it is more a future project rather than a present one,” said Stacey, “and just gaining the experience at the majors will help both of us in terms of how to communicate and handle nerves as playing with someone different can always affect people in different ways. It is definitely an exciting prospect and I’m looking forward to playing with Grace again. In doubles you have to set a tempo where your partner can cope with it as well and in men’s doubles it is fairly similar but women’s is slightly different and they like to stay closer to the table. So I think I have to adjust my game to Grace’s rather than hers to mine which is fine and I think we are doing a good job and the results are going to start to come in the future.”