Strong British squad for Greek Para Open
Recently crowned Commonwealth champions Jack Hunter-Spivey and Joshua Stacey are included in a 17-strong British squad for the Greek Para Open taking place in Argostoli on the island of Kefalonia from September 30-October 2. Rio 2016 Paralympic champion Rob Davies will be hoping to follow up his gold medal in the men’s class 1 singles at the Finland Open earlier this month and will be joined by Tokyo medallists Sue Bailey, Aaron McKibbin, Billy Shilton and Megan Shackleton, competing in her first tournament since last year’s Paralympic Games after recovering from injury.
Hunter-Spivey, who won Paralympic bronze in the men’s class 5 singles in Tokyo last year, underlined his improvement by taking gold in the men’s class 3-5 singles in Birmingham and after several narrow quarterfinal defeats in previous major championships now has the belief that he can challenge for more major titles, starting with the World Championships in Spain in November.
“I’m really proud of winning the Commonwealth title and it's finally sunk in that I’ve done it,” he said. “To share that moment with everyone who is closest to me is something I’ll never forget whatever I go on to do in my career. I’m fully focused now going into Greece and into the World Championships and hopefully I can bring back more medals. I feel I‘m getting to that stage in my career now where I’m pushing for top four or five in the world and I can consistently bring back major medals. Having the experience now of getting the job done when it matters plays a massive part in my head. I’m not just playing matches as a good table tennis player anymore I’m a Paralympic medallist and Commonwealth gold medallist, so I feel those situations bring out the best in me.
“I’m really looking forward to Greece - it’s a different feeling being number one seed but I’ve done it a few times now this season so I’m getting used to it. There are some strong players so it will be good preparation for the Worlds and should stand me in good stead for Spain.”
Stacey won gold in the men’s class 9 singles in Spain and Czech Republic prior to taking the men’s class 8-10 Commonwealth title and showed that he possesses the temperament for the big occasion when beating the Chinese-born former Paralympic champion and World number one Ma Lin in a high-quality final in Birmingham. The 22-year-old Welshman is now gaining further experience playing in the top Croatian league and is focused on more major championship success.
“Winning Commonwealth gold was a huge achievement,” he said, “and one I hope to repeat not just at future Commonwealth Games but at other major championships. It is definitely something that didn’t really sink in for the first couple of weeks but looking back now and realising the competition I had - playing Ross (Wilson) in the semis and then to beat Ma Lin for the second time in such a close match - and being able to adapt in the way I needed to in such a big game in front of a large crowd is something I can really kick on from. To be able to play a game of that magnitude just highlights how far I’ve come from 2017 when I was first classified to where I am now. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the crowd and I’d love to do it again.
“Playing in Croatia is fantastic experience and it is a nice jump from playing British league last year to going into the top league in Croatia. I feel that it is going to help my performance leading up to the World Championships and to Paris. It is a massive positive in terms of my progression and I’d like to see how far we can go as a team. I’d like to come away from the Greek Open with another gold. I feel like I’m in a really good place in terms of the way I’m playing and my mindset - I’ve never been to Greece before so it is going to be a new experience. I guess travelling to different countries is one of the luxuries that comes with playing with the British Para table tennis team and it is definitely a privilege.”
Fliss Pickard, gold medallist in the women’s class 6 singles in the Costa Brava Spanish Open earlier this season, produced some great performances to reach the semi-finals of the women’s class 6-10 singles at the Commonwealth Games and pushed the class 10 World number 19 Faith Obazuaye all the way before the Nigerian secured the bronze medal 3-1. The 28-year-old from Burnley feels she has learnt from that experience and is looking forward to playing back in class 6 again as well as doubles with Shilton (mixed XD14) and Confirmation athlete Grace Williams (women’s WD14).
“On reflection I can be really proud of the performances I gave at the Commonwealths,” she said, “and it has given me a huge boost. I’ve made some big gains since then and it just toughened me up as an athlete. There is a style that comes with each class – class 6 is very tactical and very placement based, getting people out of position and off balance, whereas in class 10 it is very much about whoever can make the first attack and follow it up is really on top of the rally and looks to win the points. It is a lot more aggressive to play.
“I’m looking forward to playing class 6 again in Greece and getting out there and seeing where I am in preparation for the World Championships. Doubles is a real challenge for me as it probably plays into my biggest weaknesses, but I always like a challenge and I’m enjoying the experience of playing with different personalities like Billy and Grace. It is also helping my singles game so to have that time on the table with my teammates is fantastic.”
Also competing in the Greek Para Open will be men’s class 6 Slovenia Open bronze medallist Martin Perry, Pathway athletes Theo Bishop, Max Flint, Ryan Henry, Jack Stockdale and Lee York as well as self-funding athletes Simon Heaps and Scott Robertson.
The full list of British athletes competing in the Greek Para Open is:
Sue Bailey, 49 – Barnsley (class 4)
Theo Bishop, 19 – Rossendale (class 7)
Rob Davies, 38 – Brecon (class 1)
Max Flint, 18 – Guildford (class TBC)
Simon Heaps, 67 – Milford-on-Sea (class 5)
Ryan Henry, 22 – Ardrossan (class 8)
Jack Hunter-Spivey, 27 – Liverpool/Sheffield (class 5)
Aaron McKibbin, 31 – London/Epsom (class 8)
Martin Perry, 28 – Paisley/Dumbarton (class 6)
Fliss Pickard, 28 – Burnley/Sheffield (class 6)
Scott Robertson, 46 – Barnsley (class 5)
Megan Shackleton, 23 – Todmorden/Sheffield (class 4)
Billy Shilton, 23 – Stonehouse/Sheffield (class 8)
Joshua Stacey, 22 – Cardiff/Sheffield (class 9)
Jack Stockdale, 22 – Romford (class 10)
Grace Williams, 19 – Wrexham/Sheffield (class 8)
Lee York, 33 – Wakefield (class 4)