Jack Hunter-Spivey delighted the home crowd at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham by taking gold in the men’s class 3-5 event but there was disappointment for Fliss Pickard (women’s class 6-10) and Sue Bailey (women’s class 3-5) as they lost their bronze medal matches.
Men’s class 3-5 gold medal match
Jack Hunter-Spivey ENG v Nasiru Sule NGR
Hunter-Spivey looked sharp from the first point and from 4-4 he ran away with the first set 11-4. Sule, Paralympic bronze medallist in 1996, responded by racing into a 7-0 lead in the second but Hunter-Spivey worked his way back to 7-7 and 9-9 before the Nigerian edged it 11-9 to level at 1-1. Cheered on by the home crowd the 27-year-old from Liverpool dominated the third set to take it 11-6 but 54-year-old Sule showed all his experience to keep himself in the fourth set. From 7-7 Hunter-Spivey moved to 10-7 and Hall 3 at the NEC in Birmingham erupted as he clinched the gold with his first match point.
“I can’t describe how it feels,” said an emotional Hunter-Spivey. “It’s so hard to describe what I’ve just done. Winning a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. It’s something that I watched on TV and never thought it was possible and now I’ve won it, it is just incredible. I just used my tactics as much as I possibly could; I’ve worked with Rushy (coach Andrew Rushton) as much as we could and he was incredible and Andy our psychologist has helped me to keep that focus on the table. It is credit to the team behind us and to UK Sport and the Lottery for funding us because without it I would never have moments like this. It feels so special - when I was a kid I wanted to be the next Steven Gerrard and to be at Anfield but this is my Anfield and the crowd were the 12th man. It is so surreal and I want to do it all again.”
Hunter-Spivey came into the tournament as the number one seed but lost a close five-set match to Sule in the group stages.
“It was in my mind but I think it was in my mind in a positive way,” he admitted. “On the first day of the competition I let the pressure get to me a bit too much and I didn’t really enjoy it. After that loss I made a conscious effort to just enjoy it and play the level I can do because there are definitely worse jobs in the world. So I sat down with Rushy and looked at the game I had lost and thought ‘I’m getting my revenge - I’m going to beat him like he beat me in the group stages’ and I’ve done it and it is incredible and I can’t wait to move forward now.”
With the gold medal round his neck, Hunter-Spivey was able to reflect on his achievement.
“That roar from the crowd going out for the medals and hearing Jerusalem being played – I’ll never ever forget it in my life and I’m so thankful for the position I’m in. The home crowd was a big motivator and it means everything to have my friends and family here. My girlfriend Lucy and I have been through thick and thin and I’m on top of the podium now and it is for both of us and everyone who has supported me - it is incredible.
“This gives me all the belief – I’m not just a table tennis player I’m a Paralympic medallist and Commonwealth Games gold medallist and I need to take that into my performance now. I’m looking forward to the World Championships. I’m in a good place, I’m playing well and everything is falling into place for me so hopefully my career is on an upward path now and I can bring home some more medals.”
Women’s class 6-10 bronze medal match
Fliss Pickard ENG v Faith Obazuaye NGR
Pickard was always facing an uphill battle in women’s class 6-10 but she had already shown her character and talent by reaching the semi-finals. In the battle for bronze she faced the class 10 Word number 19 Faith Obazuaye who had beaten her at the semi-final stage on the Gold Coast four years ago. The 28-year-old from Burnley made a great start with some clever play that frustrated the Nigerian and she took the first set 11-6. Obazuaye came back to take the next two sets 11-7 11-6 but a timeout at 3-0 down in the fourth allowed Pickard to reset and having levelled at 5-5 she edged ahead 6-5 7-6 8-7 before the 33-year-old African champion used her advantage in power and mobility to clinch the set 11-8, the match 3-1 and take the bronze medal.
“I felt I came out strong and really gave it my all,” said Pickard, “but fair play to Faith she really stepped it up in the second set and she is really strong so all credit to her. I felt I kept fighting all the way through and I can be proud of that. Rushy knows exactly where I need to be - we’ve got a great team spirit and he knows me very well. Without him behind me I don’t think I’d have the same fight as I have now. I feel that if I can go out there and get to the semi-finals as a class 6 it is really showing the world what I’m capable of and hopefully people see me as a table tennis player rather than someone to feel sorry for.”
Four years ago the Commonwealth Games proved a turning point for Pickard and she went on to take women’s class 6 singles bronze in the World Championships.
“This is going to step me forward massively,” she said. “I’ve sharpened up in a week just being around the able bodied players and watching lots of table tennis, so I feel like this is going to really catapult me forward ready for the World Championships in November. The experience has been incredible. All the volunteers and having the home crowd - the atmosphere has been phenomenal. The staff working behind the scenes couldn’t have done any more for us, so it’s been fantastic to be part of Team England.”
Women’s class 3-5 bronze medal match
Sue Bailey ENG v Sonalben Patel IND
Bailey had lost to Sonalben Patel in the group stages 3-1 and the 34-year-old class 3 World number 16 from India, who won singles gold in the Egypt Open and the Al-Watani Championships in Jordan earlier this year, took control of the match early on to take the first set 11-5. As hard as Bailey tried she could not find her game and having taken the second set 11-2 Patel secured the match and the bronze medal 11-3 in the third.
“She started so well and just never let me get into the game,” said Bailey. “Both of the Indians have played so well this tournament and I’m so disappointed in my standard of play because I know I can play a hundred times better than that. I just couldn’t get into the rally and couldn’t get the serve back. I haven’t been able to show how well I can play this week and I’m a different standard to that. I’ve been looking forward to this for so long and then to play so badly all week is so disappointing - I just couldn’t find my form at all. You want to do it for the home crowd but I couldn’t bring my game at all.”