Sue Gilroy and Jack Hunter-Spivey have secured qualification for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo by winning their respective events at the World Qualification Tournament in Lasko, Slovenia today.
Five-time Paralympian Gilroy beat Irem Oluk from Turkey 3-1 in the final of women’s class 4 and Jack Hunter-Spivey was a 3-0 winner over the German Joerg Didion in men’s class 5. However, there was disappointment for Fliss Pickard (women’s class 6), Billy Shilton (men’s class 8) and Ashley Facey Thompson (men’s class 9) who all lost their semi-finals and will now hope to receive a wild card to compete in Tokyo.
Sue Gilroy – women’s class 4
Sue Gilroy last played her semi-final opponent Faten Elelimat, the 27-year-old former World teams bronze medallist from Jordan, in 2014 and after winning a nervy first set 11-9, having led 9-2, she took the second 11-7 and ran away with the third 11-1 for a 3-0 win.
That took her through to the final against 20-year-old Irem Oluk from Turkey who had beaten the top seed Lu Pi-chun from Chinese Taipei in the semi-final. Their last meeting in the Costa Brava Open 2020 had resulted in a five-set win for Gilroy and it was Oluk who made the better start today, taking the first set 11-8. Gilroy responded by winning the second 11-5 and then took the third set 11-8 after both coaches had called time out. She used all her experience against her young opponent in the fourth set and took it 11-9 to win the match 3-1.
“It’s just been such a difficult five years for personal reasons,” said Gilroy. “I’ve been through a divorce then the COVID pandemic, so I’m absolutely thrilled and stunned to win this tournament. I’ve put a lot of hard work in and thankfully it’s paid off.
“Not competing for so long was difficult because you are out of that mindset of tournaments and preparation for matches but thankfully my preparation here has been spot on. I’ve been doing video analysis and meetings by Zoom with my coach Neil (Robinson) because I haven’t seen him for well over a year, so I haven’t been able to train with him which has been very difficult, but we have gelled again over here and it has worked out well.
“It has been so challenging after losing out on qualification last year and missing a couple of tournaments which was a real blow. There was a lot going on in the background and my head wasn’t where it should have been playing table tennis but now I’m in a happy relationship with Scott Robertson (Paralympic table tennis player) who has been amazing not only as my partner but he also trains with me. My teammates have been so supportive and the coaches and everyone at the EIS in Sheffield has helped so much with my training, so it is thanks to them."
Jack Hunter-Spivey – men’s class 5
In the semi-final Jack Hunter-Spivey faced Ki-young Kim from Korea and missed his chances to take the opening set, the 2014 World silver medallist coming back from 10-7 down to take it 13-11. Hunter-Spivey responded well, taking the next two sets 11-5 and 11-9 to lead 2-1 and held his nerve in the fourth, taking the set 11-9 and the match 3-1 on his second match point.
His final opponent was Joerg Didion from Germany, the former European team gold medallist who he had last played in 2013. The 26-year-old from Liverpool is a different player now and he took control at the beginning of the match, establishing a 2-0 lead (11-5, 11-3). However, the German fought back in the third, leading 8-4 and 9-5 and had points to win the set at 10-8, 11-10 and 12-11 but Hunter-Spivey saved them all and clinched the match 14-12 on his first match point when Didion sent a forehand long.
“It is one of the very rare times that I was speechless,” said a delighted Hunter-Spivey. “This is what I’ve been thinking about for the last 18 months or so and I’m made up that I have qualified for Tokyo and I can’t quite believe it has happened. I want to thank the coaching staff who have stood by me, my girlfriend Lucy and everyone who has supported me back home – my brother and my Mum – I’ve done this for everyone involved. It’s been an incredible journey and I want to take a medal in Tokyo now.
“Not being able to play a tournament for so long and then the first tournament you play you have to win was a very strange thing to get my head around, especially when I lost my first group game here. For months I was saying to myself ‘you can’t lose, you’ve got to win every match’ and then I did lose and it was almost a relief because I thought ‘I have lost but I’m still in the competition’. Will Bayley face-timed me and said ‘bro I did this in Rio and I went on to win it’ so I thought ‘OK, I can still do this’.
“I’m really pleased with the win over Kim because he’s got an awkward style and that is something Rushy (coach Andrew Rushton) and me have been focusing on in training. In my first match I wasn’t enjoying it because I was too tense, but I just went out today to enjoy myself and try to give my best performance.
“I went 2-0 up in the final and was thinking I should be more nervous, but I was feeling comfortable. In the third set I wouldn’t say I thought I was going to win but I started to think about the bigger picture, and I have to thank our psychologist Andy Hill for getting me through this competition because I was able to get back to deuce and go on to win. It’s been a long journey from playing on a table in my living room during lockdown and I actually won the final with the serve I was working on during lockdown in my living room.”
Fliss Pickard – women’s class 6
Fliss Pickard started well in her semi-final against Sung Keum Moon from Korea, taking the first set 11-6 but the 52-year-old Asian Championships bronze medallist edged the second 13-11 and took the third 11-8 to lead 2-1. Pickard responded by running away with the fourth 11-2 and when she led 9-6 in the decider the Korean coach called timeout. At 9-8 GB coach Andrew Rushton called timeout and at 10-8 Pickard had two match points. Moon saved both and levelled the scores at 10-10 but when she netted it gave the British player another match point. The Korean saved it with a service winner and then forced an error from her younger opponent to set up her own match point, going on to clinch the set 13-11 and the match 3-2 with another clever serve.
It was a heart-breaking way to lose for Pickard who has played so well at this tournament and narrowly lost out on automatic qualification for Tokyo on her world ranking.
Billy Shilton – men’s class 8
In his semi-final Billy Shilton faced Linus Karlsson, the current World team gold medallist, 2017 European Championship bronze medallist and Rio Paralympic team silver medallist ranked one place above him at world number 13. The 31-year-old from Sweden took the first set 11-8 but Shilton edged a close second set 12-10 to level at 1-1. Karlsson took the third set 11-5 and at 3-0 down in the fourth Shilton’s coach Andrew Rushton called a time out. The 22-year-old responded by drawing level and at 10-8 had two points to take the match into a decider but the greater experience of Karlsson proved decisive and he forced errors from his young opponent to take the set 12-10 and the match 3-1.
Ashley Facey Thompson – men’s class 9
Ashley Facey Thompson could not quite find his best form in today’s semi-final against top seed Ivan Mai, the former class 8 World and European medallist, who was reclassified here into class 9. The Ukrainian, who is also a three-time European team gold medallist, took the first set 11-8 but Facey Thompson responded well and moved to 7-3 in the second. At 7-6 GB head coach called a timeout but Mai went on to take the set 11-9.
Facey Thompson kept fighting and from 5-1 down in the third he worked his way back and had points to win the set at 10-8 and 11-10 but the Ukrainian used all his experience and edged the set 14-12 and the match 3-0.