Golden start for Pickard in Italy
World doubles champion Fliss Pickard made a perfect start to Paralympic qualification year by taking gold in the women’s class 6 singles at the Lignano Master Open in Italy today and there were also bronze medals for Rob Davies (men’s class 1), Jack Hunter-Spivey (men’s class 5) and Martin Perry (men’s class 6).
Women’s class 6
Fliss Pickard was top seed in the round-robin event and started with a 3-0 win against the World number 14 Emelie Endre from Sweden. She followed that by beating 16-year-old Barbara Jablonka from Poland, silver medallist in the Montenegrin Para Championships last year, 3-0 and was impressive in beating 21-year-old Morgen Caillaud from France, the World number seven and World doubles bronze medallist, 3-0. She looked to be heading for another three set win in her final match against World number 10 Cajsa Stadler, silver medallist in France, Czechia and Finland last year and at 10-8 in the third she had two match points. However, the 19-year-old from Sweden saved both and went on to win the set 12-10 but Pickard made no mistake in the fourth, taking it 11-3 to secure the gold.
“This tournament has been special,” she said, “the way I have allowed myself to play how I train throughout every match. The last few weeks have been tough so to win means a lot. I’m happy with the way I responded to losing the third set in my last match – I believed in myself and didn’t become fearful of what she can do. I have learnt a lot about myself at this tournament and it’s about progressing from here – when I do it’s going to be exciting!”
Men’s class 1
Rob Davies had won his last two matches against Sylvio Keller in five sets and he had another great battle with the European bronze medallist from Switzerland, the Welshman proving just the stronger in a 3-2 win. Davies beat Kim Hakjin in the final of the Finland Open last year, having lost to the Korean World number 11 in their previous two matches, and he came out on top again in a 3-1 win. A 3-0 win against the newcomer from Italy Daniele Mondini gave him a bye into the quarterfinals as group winner where he faced the Italian World number six Federico Falco. Five of their last six meetings had gone to five sets with Davies winning on each occasion, most recently at the World Championships last year. It went the distance again today with Falco twice levelling and Davies taking the deciding set 11-8.
His reward was a semi-final against the World champion Kim Hyeon Uk and the Korean World number two, silver medallist in Tokyo, was in superb form in a 3-0 win. Nonetheless it was a promising start to the season for Davies, who is working his way back to the form that has won him Paralympic gold in Rio and four European titles.
“I’m really chuffed with my tournament,” said Davies. “I’ve had some really good results for me and to play the Korean guys is always good as we don’t see them that often, so it was a good opportunity to have a look at them. Unfortunately I came up a bit short in the semi-final but I’ll take it for now. If you’d said before coming out here that I’d get bronze, I’d have snapped your hand off to be honest. I just need to get some more consistency in my game and I’m looking forward to getting back, working hard and hopefully turning it round for the next tournament in Slovenia.”
Fellow Welshman Tom Matthews began his tournament with a 3-1 win against the unranked Hiroaki Shimanari from Japan and then showed all his character and determination to fight back from 2-0 down to beat Falco 14-12 in the deciding set. He also went through to the quarterfinals as group winner after a 3-0 win against the unranked Alexandru Imbuzan from Romania but went out in the quarterfinal after a 3-0 loss to World number five Park Sung Joo from Korea, gold medallist in Greece and Thailand last year.
Men’s class 5
Jack Hunter-Spivey beat the former Paralympic bronze medallist Nasiru Sule in the Commonwealth Games final last year and he was made to fight again by the two-time African champion from Nigeria, securing a 3-1 win 16-14 in the fourth. He had to save set points against the 2019 Copa Costa Rica champion Kentaro Doi from Japan but completed a 3-0 win to take his place in the knockout stages as group winner.
He was always in control in his quarterfinal against former World silver medallist Kim Ki-Young and beat the Korean World number nine 3-0 but was then involved in a great battle against the surprise player of the tournament Bolawa Akingbemisilu. The 45-year-old Nigerian is making his international debut here and he led 2-1 before Hunter-Spivey levelled at 2-2. At 10-8 in the deciding set the 27-year-old from Liverpool had two match points but could not convert either of them and Akingbemisilu took the set 12-10 and the match 3-2.
“I’m disappointed with that performance,” said Hunter-Spivey, “being 10-8 up in the fifth set I’m always going to back myself against anyone to win. He is a new player with a different style to what I’m used to so there are things to work on and improve but it’s the first tournament of the season. I’m looking forward to doubles with Meg (Shackleton) now and hopefully we can bring back that gold.”
Self-funded Simon Heaps lost nothing in a 3-2 defeat to the World number six Mitar Palikuca from Serbia, fighting back to level at 2-2 after taking only four points in the first two sets. He did not progress from his group after a 3-1 loss to World number 20 Park Jae Hyeon from Korea.
Men’s class 6
Martin Perry started with a 3-0 win against the unranked Joao Cardoso from Portugal and took the first set against Michael Azulay from Sweden but the gold medallist in last year’s Finland Para Open came back to win the match 3-1. That left Perry needing to win his final match to be sure of progressing from the group and a 3-0 win against 14-year-old Samuel Altshuler from USA, silver medallist in Mexico last year, took him through to the knockout stages.
In the quarterfinal he faced Bobi Simion, World number seven and European silver medallist. The Romanian led their head-to-head 9-4 but Perry had won their most recent meeting in Slovenia last year and he repeated that success today with a 3-0 win.
The 28-year-old Scot always has great battles with Esteban Herrault and so it proved again today, with the 29-year-old Frenchman, who came here off the back of winning gold in the Egypt Open last month, just coming out on top with a 3-2 win after Perry had led 2-1.
“I’m obviously delighted to beat Bobi again, especially 3-0,” said Perry. “Playing Esteban is always tough and our matches are super close. I put myself in a really good position to win it - I was 2-1 up and serving well and giving myself opportunities to put the ball away and I just overcooked my forehand a little bit and was trying to put too much spin on the ball. Credit to Esteban for keeping himself in the game. I’m gutted not to be in the final, but I feel I’m not far off where I want to be, so it’s been a good start to the season and to qualification year and I’m still in a good position going forward. Really looking forward to playing doubles with Billy now and hopefully we can get some more medals.”
Men’s class 3
Pathway athlete Romain Simon lost his opening match 3-0 to the 25-year-old Italian Matteo Orsi, gold medallist in the Costa Brava Spanish Open in 2020 and competing for the first time since the Tokyo Paralympic Games. He was beaten 3-0 by Yuichiro Kitagawa, the former Asian Youth Para Games champion from Japan and did not progress after a 3-0 loss to Mladen Ciric from Serbia, the Montenegrin Para Championship silver medallist and World Championships mixed doubles bronze medallist.
Men’s class 7
Pathway athlete Theo Bishop put up a great performance to beat the World number 11 and four-time PanAmerican champion Paulo Salmin Filho from Brazil 3-1 in his first match, taking the first two sets and securing the win 11-9 in the fourth. He lost a close match against Luka Trtnik from Slovenia, the former European Para Youth Games champion, 3-2 but progressed to the knockout stages on countback. Bishop produced another great effort in the last 16 against Jonas Hansson. The 19-year-old from Rossendale had won their only previous meeting in Finland last year in five sets and led 2-1 today but the World number 18 from Sweden used his greater experience to take the match 3-2.
Men’s class 8
Top seed Aaron McKibbin looked sharp from the first ball and was a comfortable 3-0 winner against Pablo Jacobsen, the 23-year-old Norwegian who was bronze medallist in France, Montenegro and Finland last year. He secured top place in his group with a 3-0 win against Niklas Westerberg from Sweden, the former class 7 European bronze medallist, and after receiving a bye into the quarterfinals came up against former World number one Piotr Grudzien. The Polish former World and Paralympic team gold medallist is a tough competitor and he just had the edge today in a 3-1 win.
Billy Shilton was a 3-0 winner against the veteran Hu Ming-Fu from Chinese Taipei, the former World number one competing in his first international tournament since the Asian Championships in 2019. He beat the 19-year-old Frenchman Edgar Empis 3-0 and secured top place in his group with a 3-0 win against the 19-year-old Italian Leonardo Coletta. Shilton also received a bye into the quarterfinals and made a good start against Emil Andersson but the Swedish World number eight, a former European champion and World and Paralympic medallist came back to level at 1-1, edged the third 13-11 and took the match 11-7 in the fourth.
Men’s class 9
In his first tournament since the Tokyo Paralympics Ashley Facey would have hoped for an easier return than a match against the World, Paralympic and European champion Laurens Devos and the World number one from Belgium, who has not lost a singles match in class 9 since 2015, was a 3-0 winner. Facey took his place in the quarterfinals after beating Tajudeen Agunbiade, the Nigerian former Paralympic champion who is currently unranked but a former World number three, 3-0. He beat Lucas Didier in the World Qualification Tournament for Tokyo in 2021 but the pair have taken very different paths since, with Facey taking a year out to pursue a career in cycling while Didier won bronze at last year’s World Championships, and it was the 19-year-old Frenchman who was the stronger today in a 3-0 win.
Women’s class 4
Megan Shackleton was a 3-0 winner against the American Valerie Rolph, silver medallist in Mexico last year, and then took on the World number one Borislava Peric-Rankovic from Serbia. The former World and Paralympic champion had won all 13 of their previous matches and she was too consistent for the student from Todmorden who is competing in only her second tournament since Tokyo. Shackleton had her chances to win the second set but Peric-Rankovic completed a 3-0 win. Her final opponent in the group Shin Mi Kyoung from Korea is currently unranked but had taken Peric-Rankovic to five sets and after taking control of the first set she survived a fightback from Shackleton to edge the second set 16-14 and took the match 11-7 in the third.