Fliss Pickard and Grace Williams produced an incredible performance at the World Para Table Tennis Championships in Andalucia today to take gold in the women’s class 14 doubles, beating the top seeds from Germany 3-0. The pair, who started playing together last year, had already exceeded all expectations in beating France in their semi-final last night and they stepped up another level in today’s final against the hugely experienced German pair of class 6 World number two and Tokyo bronze medallist Stephanie Grebe and class 8 World number three Juliane Wolf.
Pickard and Williams started well and fought back from 9-7 down to take the first set 11-9 before dominating the second set 11-4. At 4-1 down in the third set Germany took a timeout but the young British pair moved to 9-6 and within touching distance of the gold. At 9-8 GB coach Shaun Marples called a timeout and at 10-8 Pickard and Williams had two match points. Both came and went but at 11-10 it was third time lucky and when Grebe’s shot flew high into the air Pickard fell to the floor before being hugged by Williams.
“I knew we’d get there one day,” said 28-year-old Pickard from Burnley, “but I never thought it would happen so soon. Yesterday was a real breakthrough for us and I knew if we could play the same way again today we had a chance. Grace was incredible - the way she dealt with the pressure was unbelievable and I think you could really see out there we were both having lots of fun and that is what has got us to where we are.
“It was important to get a good start but we didn’t think too much about what we were going to do, we just went out there and played the way we wanted to play and tried to dictate the game and work from there really and luckily our best is good enough. At match point I was trying to say to Grace ‘OK, we just keep doing the same things’ but obviously whether you like it or not it is going through your head. I knew Germany had the experience and ability to pull it back and until the fat lady sings it’s not over so we had to keep fighting and that is exactly what we did.”
No athlete deserves a World title more than Pickard. Singles bronze medallist four years ago she was devastated to miss out on qualification for Tokyo but has used that as motivation and after winning four tournaments in the last 12 months is now ranked World number three in women’s class 6.
“This is just incredible,” she said, “from where I was just before Tokyo to now is indescribable and I think I can be very proud of myself. Not just with how far I’ve come as an athlete but as a person as well and the way I’m able to communicate and conduct myself within the team. I can be incredibly proud of that.”
For 19-year-old Williams, from Llanfyllin in North Wales, who only started playing table tennis five years ago and was awarded a wild card to compete here, these Championships have signalled her arrival on the world stage and her performance with Pickard has more than justified the faith that the team has in her talent and potential.
“I felt pressure before the match and a bit overwhelmed as it was a World Championship final,” she said, “but I knew I had Fliss beside me and Shaun in the corner and I knew whatever the outcome they’d be proud of me and I’d be proud of myself as well. I didn’t think too much about it but once we got a good start against Germany I thought ‘I really want this now’. As soon as we won the final point I thought ‘that’s it’ but it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
Williams trains with Pickard and the rest of the British team at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield where she is also studying nutrition at University.
“Coming to the Worlds as a wild card I kind of expected to come for the experience,” she said, “and learn what to do in matches - what to do on the table and off the table and see what everyone else is doing. But the fact that I’m here and I’ve got a gold medal is just surreal and I can’t believe it.”
For coach Shaun Marples, BPTT’s Pathway manager, this result is testament to the success of the development programme that he has guided since 2013.
“I’m unbelievably proud of them and what they have achieved today,” he said. “Being part of their journey since coming on to the programme and progressing into the Performance programme and for them to be able to deliver a mature performance like that on the biggest stage really shows you what great characters they both are, what champions they are and what key qualities they have as brilliant table tennis players which they’ve just become.
“When I called timeout at 9-8 in the third set we decided it was a free point because we brought the focus back on to our serve – we lost those first two match points but it was about the momentum and keeping composed and doing the same things. I just said to them ‘look we’ve got ourselves into this position by doing the right things so make sure we execute it and let’s see - what will be will be.”
For both players celebrations will have to wait until after the singles competition. Pickard starts her bid for a medal in women’s class 6 against Hanna Hammad from Egypt later today while Williams has to wait until Thursday morning for her first match in women’s class 8 against Aneth Araya from Costa Rica.