The Lignano Masters Para Open in Italy next week (March 15-18) is the start of Paralympic qualification for nine members of the British Para Table Tennis Team Performance Squad, including World champions Fliss Pickard and Billy Shilton, Rio Paralympic champion Rob Davies, Tokyo medallists Megan Shackleton, Jack Hunter-Spivey and Tom Matthews and World Championship medallists Aaron McKibbin and Martin Perry.
Shilton took gold with Paul Karabardak in the men’s class 14 doubles at the World Championships in Spain last November and having reached a career high of World number seven in men’s class 8 is hoping to consolidate his doubles form in singles this year.
“It was an amazing moment for me and Paul to become World champions,” said the 24-year-old from Stonehouse in Gloucestershire, “and I’ve used that as motivation for my training over the winter, especially as I was a bit disappointed with my singles performance and that has really pushed me on. Being World champion has given me the belief that I can do it and I want to bring that into my singles more. I had a couple of good wins last year that got me over the line in qualifying for the Worlds and I feel pretty confident about Italy. I’ve always focused more on playing well than results - I just want to play the best I can and play my game and I know that is good enough to beat anyone. If I can focus on that and not let the pressure of qualification overrun my thoughts, I think I’ll have a good season.”
After winning team medals at Paralympic, World and European level McKibbin won his first major singles medal when taking bronze in the men’s class 8 singles at the World Championships and has also reached a career high ranking of World number four. The 31-year-old Londoner, now based in Epsom, is targeting another singles medal in Paris.
“I’m obviously very proud to have won my first major singles medal,” he said, “and I know it is a good achievement, but it shows where I believe I am that I’m not happy with the result. Five or six years ago I would have been over the moon with it, but over the last couple of years my level has been improving and I’m aiming for bigger things now and I believe I’ve got the ability to go further.
“I treat every tournament as important and I want to win everything I play in. I’ve got a great opportunity in Italy – with my ranking I’ll be one of the top three seeds and I’ll have to get used to that and it will put me in good shape for the Europeans. I‘ve played a lot of domestic competitions like British League and Grand Prix since the World Championships which is quite unique for me as normally I would just have been training through the winter so I actually feel quite match sharp already and I’m looking forward to Italy.”
Having received a wild card to compete in the World Championships Perry produced the performance of his life to take bronze in the men’s class 6 singles. The 28-year-old from Paisley is now focused on qualification for his first Paralympic Games in Paris and consolidating his position in the world’s top 10 for the first time.
“I went to the World Championships with something to prove,” he said, “and that performance was definitely a stepping stone for me to hopefully go on and do even better things in the future. Training has been good and I’m really looking forward to playing Italy – I feel I’ve improved and hopefully I can show that on the table. Ultimately there are not going to be any easy matches this year because of what it means to everyone trying to qualify for Paris.
“There is always pressure to qualify and that hasn’t changed. We don’t know the criteria yet – I’m number 10 in the world but as far as I know that may not be good enough to qualify so we have to take every match as it comes and not take anything for granted. I don’t want to be content with 10 in the world - I want to be higher. The World Championships has definitely given me confidence and self-belief, but I want to improve and win more medals and of course I want to be representing ParalympicsGB in Paris – that’s the goal and hopefully I can get off to a good start in Italy.”
Welshman Matthews took bronze in the men’s class 1 singles on his Paralympic debut in Tokyo and was bitterly disappointed to lose a very close quarterfinal at the World Championships to the World number one and Paralympic champion Joo Young Dae from Korea.
“It has motivated me massively over the winter,” admitted the 30-year-old from Aberdare. “I’ve watched the footage from the Worlds with my coach Neil (Robinson) which has been hard because it was a bitter pill to swallow. Looking back at that game it was so close but next time I’ll have him. It was tough to get him in the quarterfinals but that was because of my seeding so I need to improve my ranking and hopefully see him in the final next time.
“I’m out to prove a point this year. It is massively important for seedings at the majors to be more consistent at the smaller tournaments. I’ve always done well at the majors but it is the smaller tournaments where I need to start putting players away and winning them to be honest, starting in Italy.”
The squad is completed by Ashley Facey competing in his first tournament since Tokyo, Pathway players Theo Bishop and Romain Simon, and self-funded athlete Simon Heaps.
The full list of British athletes competing in the Lignano Master Para Open is:
Theo Bishop, 19, Rossendale (class 7)
Rob Davies, 38, Brecon (class 1)
Ashley Facey, 28, London/Sheffield (class 9)
Simon Heaps, 67, Milford-on-Sea (class 5)
Jack Hunter-Spivey, 27, Liverpool/Sheffield (class 5)
Tom Matthews, 30, Aberdare (class 1)
Aaron McKibbin, 31, London/Epsom (class 8)
Martin Perry, 28, Paisley/Dumbarton (class 6)
Fliss Pickard, 28, Burnley/Sheffield (class 6)
Megan Shackleton, 23, Todmorden/Sheffield (class 4)
Billy Shilton, 24, Stonehouse/Sheffield (class 8)
Romain Simon, 33, South Woodford (class 3)