On the final day of the Para table tennis events at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham Joshua Stacey defeated the former Paralympic and three-time World champion Ma Lin to take gold in the men’s class 8-10 singles for Wales and on a great day for the British Para Table Tennis Team Ross Wilson came through a tough five-set battle against another former Paralympic champion Tajudeen Agunbiade to take the bronze for England.
Men’s class 8-10 gold medal match: Joshua Stacey WAL v Ma Lin AUS
This was the fifth meeting between Stacey and Ma, the Chinese-born class 9 former World number one who now represents Australia. Ma beat Stacey 3-0 in the Tokyo Paralympic Games last year but the 22-year-old Welshman is improving all the time and recorded his first win against the 32-year-old Australian in their most recent meeting at the Costa Brava Spanish Open this year, 3-2.
Today’s match was Stacey’s first major final and the hugely experienced Ma took an early lead in the first set but Stacey came back to level at 8-8 and had the first chance to win it at 10-9. From there it developed into a titanic battle with some great rallies and both players having game points before Stacey finally clinched it 25-23 with a backhand winner to a huge cheer from the crowd.
Unsurprisingly Ma responded by raising his level and he came back to take the next two sets 11-5 11-9 but Stacey kept his composure and raced into a 6-1 lead in the fourth before taking it 11-6 to level at 2-2 and take the match into a fifth and deciding set. Once again he started well, using his forehand to great effect to take a 5-0 lead and to the delight of the crowd he clinched the match and the gold medal 11-5 on his first match point when Ma sent his return long.
Draped in the Welsh flag Stacey saluted the crowd who stood to applaud and cheer him to the rafters.
Afterwards he acknowledged how important it was to win that first set.
“To be honest the main thing that it helped me with was to find the tactic that really put Ma under a lot of pressure,” said Stacey, “and allowed me to apply my game rather than be on the back foot and try and scrape points. Winning it was huge – if I lose that set that momentum is not with me and who knows what the result could have been.
“In the second set I feel that Ma really changed his tactics very well and he put me under the pressure that I felt I put him under in the last two. At 2-1 down I feel like I kept with one tactic but just mixed it up between the short serve to the forehand and long into the backhand just to make sure he was always unaware as to what I was doing. It allowed me to get on to my forehand and whenever we did go topspin to topspin it was me that came out on top, so I was trying to force that rally on him.
“In the fifth set I feel that my start really set the tone. I think after that ball when I was 1-0 up and I looped a ball down the line for 2-0 I felt his head drop a little bit and that gave me a bit of a kick to try and push on and beat him as easily as possible. He’s a phenomenal player and has pretty much done it all so it’s an unbelievable result for me.”
Watched by his friends and family it was an emotional win for the young Welshman, who had taken bronze on the Gold Coast four years ago and is surely destined to win more major titles.
“The atmosphere in the hall was incredible,” said Stacey. “I’ve been a part of the supporters while the Welsh girls have been competing and they did an unbelievable job all tournament. It was phenomenal – we never really get to experience it because we never have a home Games but to have it and get the result I got, I’ll never forget it.
“I was thinking about my grandad on the podium. To have family and friends here means everything – it is something you dream of and I’m beyond thankful to have achieved it.
“I feel like I’ve shown that I’m capable of winning more titles. Ma Lin has a better head-to-head record than me and the fact that I could beat him knowing that he usually beats me, I don’t see why I can’t go on and win more major titles. It is definitely my goal in the future.”
Men’s class 8-10 bronze medal match: Ross Wilson ENG v Tajudeen Agunbiade NGR
Defending the title he won four years ago Wilson was hugely disappointed to lose his semi-final to Stacey on Friday but he showed what a great competitor he is with a fighting performance to secure the bronze medal. He started well by taking the first set 11-9 and led 5-1 in the second before Agunbiade came back to take it 11-9 and level at 1-1. Wilson took the third 11-4 and led 5-1 in the fourth but the class 9 World number 13 from Nigeria used all his experience to work his way back and having levelled at 8-8 he moved to 10-8. Wilson saved both game points and had match point at 12-11 and 14-13 before 47-year-old Agunbiade finally edged it 17-15.
The African champion took an early advantage in the deciding set and led 4-1 but Wilson fought back superbly to level at 4-4. Two great forehand returns took him to 10-6 and he produced another forehand winner to secure the set 11-6 and take the bronze medal.
“To be honest, at 1-1, I wasn’t over-panicking or anything,” said Wilson. “It’s happened to me quite a lot this week where I’ve felt like I’ve had a really good run of points, I’ve been playing well and then it’s kind of dipped from nowhere and I lose consecutive points. It’s just like a big momentum swing more than anything. So I wasn’t too worried, I knew I could bounce back from that.
“But after losing such a long fourth set and then it went 4-1 to him in the fifth, I was just thinking ‘here we go again, it’s getting away from me’. But I just stuck in there and fortunately it all came together in the end and I’m really proud of myself for believing in myself until the end.”
Bronze medal matches are never easy with so much on the line.
“You try not to be too outcome-focused or anything but you are a lot of the time,” he admitted. “The feeling of coming away with nothing – you do think about it a lot. I was just trying to focus on my processes today and I was just trying to dig in there and that’s what it came down to in the end, actually just keeping my head in there and fighting for every point.
“It's an amazing feeling. I think my family are used to bronze now, I get bronze quite a lot, which is a bit annoying. But I think they’re all over the moon. A home crowd, my family, my friends, my girlfriend, my little nephew who’s just been born, they’ve all come to watch and it makes me so proud to be able to go out there and perform in front of them. Admittedly, it’s not been my best performances at this Games but I’ve kept in there until the end and I’m really proud of myself for that.”