After the first day of singles at the Slovenia Para Open in Lasko all nine athletes from the British Para Table Tennis Performance Squad are through to the knockout stages, including 2016 Paralympic champion Will Bayley and reigning World and Commonwealth champion Ross Wilson, while the four Pathway athletes did not progress from their groups but played well against more experienced opposition.
The Slovenia Open is being held for the first time since 2019 due to the pandemic and has attracted a top-class entry of more than 330 athletes from 39 countries including Ukraine. With all of the top Para table tennis nations represented with the exception of China this tournament provides the toughest competition outside the World Championships this year.
The singles continue tomorrow when for the first time the tournament will also see the start of the doubles events with all finals being played on Saturday.
Men’s class 1
Competing for the first time since taking Paralympic bronze in Tokyo last year, Tom Matthews came agonisingly close to a win in his first match against Lim Seeun from Korea. Having lost the first set 11-9 he took the next two and led 6-4 in the fourth before a time out for Lim turned the set around and the Korean levelled at 2-2. In the deciding set Matthews led 5-1 but Lim took six points in a row and led 8-6. The Welshman kept fighting and had match point at 10-9 but could not convert it and Lim took the set 12-10 and the match 3-2.
Matthews and Andrea Borgato last met in Tokyo when Matthews won in four sets. The Welshman edged a close first set 12-10 today, having led 10-5, and went on to complete a 3-0 win over the World number nine and World team gold medallist from Italy. He then secured progress to the quarterfinals with a 3-0 win against Marian Kamien from Slovakia which left him top of the group after Lim lost to both Borgato and Kamien.
“It was damage limitation really,” admitted Matthews. “I played quite well in the first game and blew the cobwebs off from Tokyo beating Borgato 3-0 and Marian 3-0. I’m really happy with my performance especially against Borgato - he is a tricky character and we’ve had some big old battles in the past, so it was good to get through him and get through my group. Lim played really well and I’ve got to give him credit. I was a bit nervous having not played since Tokyo and he just edged it but next time he’s not getting anything.”
Men’s class 2
Pathway athlete Andrew Guy was far from disgraced in a 3-0 loss to World number nine Jiri Suchanek from Czech Republic, the Paralympic bronze medallist in Rio 2016 and team bronze medallist in Tokyo, and he won his second match against Peter Isherwood from Canada 3-0 before losing 3-0 to the former World number one and London 2012 Paralympic champion Jan Riapos from Slovakia.
“I feel that I’ve learned a lot,” said Guy. “Obviously I didn’t expect to win against the higher seeded players but just to put in a good performance against them. I played very well especially against Suchanek - I felt that I made all the right shot selections but my accuracy let me down a bit and it is definitely a match I feel I could take in the future. To win the second match was great for my confidence and in the third once I just played my game I was more competitive, so it has given me a lot to think about and a lot to learn and take back home. I’ll try and think about the things I’ve learnt today and put them into practice in the doubles tomorrow.”
Men’s class 4
Pathway athlete Lee York had a tough group and lost 3-0 to the Tokyo Paralympic team bronze medallist Peter Mihalik from Slovakia, Costa Brava Spanish Open medallist Tomislav Spalj from Croatia and World number three Maxime Thomas, the Tokyo bronze medallist in singles and team from France.
“There were some moments that were good and some that were bad,” said York. “When you get told to do something and try to put that into matches and it doesn’t come off it is frustrating, but obviously that is where you need to learn and eventually those shots that were missing go on (the table) and you become the better player that you want to be. I’m definitely learning from other players. Against Thomas – the way he does his serves, the variety and the position where he puts the ball on the table, I’m not used to that and if I can do a little bit of what these players do to me and put it on to somebody else that is going to help my game. It is the way they conduct themselves on the court - how they slow things down when they are under pressure and speed things up when they are working in their favour. Just watching the better players do things like that, if I can take some of that into my game it will really help.”
Men’s class 5
Jack Hunter-Spivey started with a comfortable 3-0 win against Gerardus Van Grunsven from Netherlands but he had to show all his trademark fight and determination to come back from 2-1 down to defeat World and European team medallist Hamza Caliskan from Turkey 3-2. He came through another tough match against Norakan Chanpahaka from Thailand, eventually beating the Asian Youth Para Games gold medallist 11-9 in the fifth.
“It wasn’t my best level of table tennis today, but I’ve shown that I’ve still got the fight even if I’m not playing my best,” said Hunter-Spivey, who celebrated his 27th birthday today. “There are no easy matches now in Para table tennis - everyone is at a great level and to win your group at one of the biggest tournaments is an honour. I think I’m drawing on my experience as I’m getting older - I’m the ripe old age of 27 now so I think I’m getting there. I’ve learnt not to panic in situations and I actually felt quite comfortable even though it was close. My concentration was wavering quite a lot today so I’m still getting the cobwebs off after Tokyo. I’m happy with my fight although not so much my performance but I’ll take that.”
Men’s class 6
Martin Perry led 10-6 in the first set against Bobi Simion before the World number seven came back to edge it 16-14 but the Scot played superbly to win the next three and beat the European silver medallist 3-1. After losing the first set he had to show all his fighting qualities to defeat Georgios Mouchthis 3-2 after the European team silver medallist from Greece had levelled at 2-2 and he came back from 2-1 down in his final match against Matias Nicolas Pino Lorca to beat the two-time PanAmerican champion from Chile 3-2.
“I feel amazing to be honest,” said Perry. “I feel I’m playing quite well and I’m playing to the conditions of the hall very well. It is very quick in here and very bouncy and I feel I’m using that to my advantage. I feel that I’m expressing myself on the table which is something I’ve lacked in the last couple of tournaments. I don’t know if not going to Tokyo was having some sort of side-effect but now obviously I’ve got my eyes set on the World Championships this year and a lot of the things I’ve been doing in Sheffield and at home in Drumchapel are really starting to manifest into my game. I’ve had three tough matches and I’ve managed to come through and win them all and there were definitely times in all of them when I leaned on my team mates to get me through so the support from the whole team was really good. If I keep playing the way I’m playing I’ve hopefully got a chance to go a lot further in this tournament.”
Men’s class 7
In his first international tournament since Tokyo Will Bayley was a 3-0 winner against the 2017 European Para Youth Games champion Luka Trtnik from Slovenia and secured top place in his group with a 3-0 win against the former European medallist Daniel Horut from Czech Republic.
“I think I played well,” said Bayley. “I played to the level I can play and it was pretty solid today. I’ve had some difficult matches with Horut in the past and we’ve been 3-2 a few times so it was good to get that out of the way. Tomorrow is going to be a really tough day and I’m looking forward to it. I’m really happy with my match play - I’ve been playing so many matches in England because I know that for me at this stage of my career matches are so important. I’ve got all the training under my belt but matches are so important to improve but I’ve done a lot of that so I feel really match sharp and that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Pathway athlete Theo Bishop put up a great performance in defeat to Chalermpong Punpoo from Thailand. The teenager from Bury led 2-1 before the World team silver medallist, Asian Championships and Asian Para Games medallist used all his experience to level at 2-2 and win the deciding set 11-6. Bishop came even closer to winning his second match against Zbynek Lambert from Czech Republic having match point at 10-9 in the fourth set and saving three match points in the deciding set before the former World team silver medallist clinched the set 12-10 and the match 3-2. He lost his final match to World number eight and World team bronze medallist Katsuyoshi Yagi from Japan 3-0.
“It was tough to lose those two matches when it was so close,” said Bishop, “but there are a lot of positives to take from the fact that I was so close and I’m definitely in with a shout of beating both those players. In the final match he was a lot stronger, but I took a lot from that match so next time I can out up more of a fight. Training at the national centre my level is going up and up so hopefully it continues in that way and I’ll be challenging the higher ranked players. I’m disappointed but I’ve loved it today. I’ve worked so hard and I feel like I’ve shown my level and in the future I can be a threat to these players. It’s been really good experience and I’ve taken a lot from it.”
Men’s class 8
After a slow start Ross Wilson came through 3-0 against the Asian Championships and Asian Para Games team silver medallist Komkrit Charitsat from Thailand and he secured his place in the knockout stages as group winner with a 3-0 win against 20-year-old Aleksej Radukic from Serbia.
“I didn’t start too quickly but I did what I needed to do to get the results,” said Wilson. “I played a bit better in the second match and picked myself up. I was just trying to work hard and give myself that energy and try to be present in the moment and that worked really well for me. It’s a long way to go but I’m just focused on enjoying it and taking each match as it comes. My level is still a bit short of where I’d like it to be but that will come with match practice and playing more competitions. The more I play the better I will play so I’m just enjoying what I’m doing and that’s all I can ask for.”
Aaron McKibbin had to fight hard in his first match against the former Copa Costa Rica champion Johannes Urban from Germany before winning 3-1, 16-14 in the fourth. He had to dig even deeper against Asian Championships and Asian Para Games bronze medallist Phisit Wangphonphathanasiri from Thailand to come back from 2-1 down and win 11-6 in the fifth before securing top place in the group with a 3-0 win against Pablo Jacobsen from Norway.
“It is nice to win especially when you feel you’re up against it,” said McKibbin. “I felt I was playing well but the style of players in the first two matches we don’t get to play against very often. I’ve lost to Urban before and beaten him quite a few times, but he is always a style I struggle against. I’ve never lost to Phisit but he has changed his rubbers since I last played him and I was just trying to work out what was going on. Once I got into my rhythm, I felt fine and it was nice to finish off against someone who plays a bit more of a normal game and it gives me bit of a boost for the next match. Hopefully I’m playing my way in and with each round I’ll get better and better.”
Billy Shilton got off to a flying start with a 3-0 win against Fredrik Johansen, the 2017 European Para Youth Games medallist from Norway, and then had his chances against Clement Berthier from France but the Tokyo team bronze medallist who won the Egypt Open last month had won their last two meetings and just had the edge again today in a 3-1 win. Shilton took second place in the group after a 3-0 win against 15-year-old Borna Zohil from Croatia.
“My performance was mixed to be honest,” said Shilton. “Obviously I was really disappointed to lose against Clement. He is a style I find quite challenging as all the in-and-out movement is quite difficult for me but the other two matches I played were really good and I was happy with how focused I was and the game plan I had. Zohil took me to the fifth in Spain so I’m really happy with that performance. The hard work I am putting in in training is starting to show in my matches. It didn’t really show in Spain - my expectations were too high and I was struggling to stay focused - but here I feel really focused so we’ll see what happens.”
Men’s class 9
Joshua Stacey was impressive in beating the African Championships team gold medallist Francis Chukwuemeka from Nigeria 3-0 in his first match. He had beaten Mohamed Kalem from Italy for the first time in Tokyo 3-2 and he was always in command against the World number nine and Rio 2016 Paralympic bronze medallist today in a 3-0 win. After winning the first set against Abe Hayuma from Japan, Stacey had to work hard to take the second 15-13 before going on to beat the Asian Youth Para Games gold medallist 3-0.
“I think my overall game is really solid,” said Stacey, “and I didn’t give my opponents opportunities to really get into the game. When I got a foothold in the game it felt that it was difficult for my opponent to cause me any problems. It was really good to beat Kalem 3-0 after Tokyo just to show that my level is going up and I am improving. I’m definitely happy that I’ve made progress since Tokyo but not satisfied and there is still a long way to go.”
Women’s class 6
Fliss Pickard began with a 3-0 win against 18-year-old Cajsa Stadler from Sweden and then fought back from 2-1 down to defeat the World number five and Asian champion Lee KunWoo from Korea
11-7 in the fifth. She secured top place in her group with a 3-0 win against Camelia Ciripan from Romania, the Egypt Para Open silver medallist.
“I feel I was up and down in patches,” said Pickard, “but to get the job done and beat another top player and tick that one off the list is always nice. Today is done now and there is still a long way to go. To beat Lee was incredible because I’ve never taken a set off her before so I was very strong mentally to be able to graft and get myself back into the match especially when I didn’t feel like I was playing my best. But I can take the positives from that and take a lot of confidence and I’ve got to believe ready for tomorrow.”
Women’s class 8
Pathway athlete Grace Williams played well against the French Para Open 2021 gold medallist Yuri Tomono from Japan in a 3-0 loss to the Asian Para Games bronze medallist and then showed great character to beat Olaia Martinez from Spain 11-4 in the fifth after the 14-year-old had come back from 2-0 down to level at 2-2. She lost her final match 3-0 to Lucie Hautiere from France, the 21-year-old Egypt Para Open champion, who had partnered Williams to a bronze medal in the doubles in last week’s French Open.
“I’m very happy with how I played,” said Williams. “I think coming here from France is quite difficult because it is two tournaments back-to-back. The win gave me some confidence in playing the last match. Everyone has different bats and different styles and for me it affects me mentally more as I’m at the stage where I’m still learning but it is a learning experience which is good. It was tough playing Lucie considering we played doubles last week which doesn’t help when you are playing against each other. She played a lot to my weaknesses which I obviously need to improve. I’m looking forward to playing doubles with Josh and Fliss because they are higher ranked and more experienced and I feel that I learn a lot more from playing doubles with experienced players because we are a team and I’m very grateful for the experience.”