World champion Will Bayley, four-time European champion Rob Davies and Commonwealth champions Jack Hunter-Spivey and Joshua Stacey head an 18-strong British squad for the ITTF European Para Table Tennis Championships that are taking place at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield from September 4-9, only the second time since the London 2012 Paralympic Games that the stars of the British Para Table Tennis Team have had the opportunity to compete in front of a home crowd.
The tournament also represents an opportunity for athletes to secure Paralympic qualification with the gold medallist in each singles class earning a ‘golden ticket’ for Paris 2024 and valuable World ranking points available in both singles and doubles events.
The British squad also features World doubles champions Billy Shilton and Paul Karabardak and Fliss Pickard and Grace Williams, World medallists Aaron McKibbin, Martin Perry, Ross Wilson and Tom Matthews and four members of the BPTT Pathway squad who will be making their major championship debuts including 13-year-old Bly Twomey and Chris Ryan, who captained the GB wheelchair rugby team to Paralympic gold in Tokyo.
Bayley is undefeated in men’s class 7 since taking Paralympic silver in Tokyo and reclaimed his World title in Spain last November. He last won European gold in 2011 and is hoping to add a second European title to his glittering CV in front of a home crowd.
“Every major championship means everything to me,” said Bayley. “I haven’t won European gold since 2011 so it is difficult to win these tournaments and I have to be at my very best to have a chance. I take nothing for granted and I’ll be really focused for every match. I think that’s what I’ve improved the most in the last few years - not getting too carried away thinking about winning a tournament but just trying to get through the rounds. It’s going to be very tough and there are some amazing players who all want to beat me. To win the Europeans at home would be very special and probably one of the best moments of my career.”
The 35-year-old has been working with Bly Twomey at Brighton TTC and will play mixed doubles in Sheffield with the 13-year-old, who only started playing table tennis two years ago.
“Bly is an amazing player and she would be amazing without me,” said Bayley. “She is so good to work with and she actually motivates me because she is so good in the training hall and really wants to win so it is making me better and I owe a lot to her. I sometimes forget she is only 13 – to be playing at this level as a 13-year-old is unbelievable so we’re just going to have fun and enjoy every single minute.”
Davies will be bidding for his fifth consecutive European title in men’s class 1. The Rio 2016 Paralympic champion was unable to defend his title in Tokyo due to a shoulder injury and will face tough opposition including his teammate and fellow Welshman Tom Matthews, who came out on top in their recent meeting in the final of the Czech Open in June.
“I’m feeling excited for the tournament,” said Davies. “Obviously having it in Sheffield is a great opportunity and hopefully there’ll be plenty of Welsh supporters. We haven’t had a Europeans for four years which has been good for me because I’ve been out injured a lot of the time. I try not to think too much about going for my fifth consecutive title because you can’t think about the outcome you just have to take it match by match. Every match is difficult so I’m looking forward to the challenge and we’ll see how it goes. Tom and I are both competitive guys – he’s a youngster coming through and if he can get to the final it will be brilliant and if we could both get there it would be perfect. We’ll think about that if it happens but at the moment I just want to keep improving. I’ve got a way to go to be at my best but I’m going to keep training hard and think about each match as it comes.”
Stacey won his first major title at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last year, taking gold for Wales in the men’s class 8-10 singles, and reached the final in the World Championships, losing in four sets to the brilliant Belgian Laurens Devos, who has not lost a match in men’s class 9 since 2015.
“This season has been a bit up and down,” said Stacey, who took five months out after the World Championships to recover from injury, “but having the time off I needed to sort my body out I’ve just accepted that my level and how I’m playing may not be exactly where I want it to be. The plan has always been to try and peak come September and I think I’m in a good place to do that.”
Stacey is also looking to improve on the silver medal that he and doubles partner Ross Wilson won in Spain last year.
“I definitely feel I’m in a stronger position going into the Europeans than I was at the Worlds last year,” he said, “and I think I’ll be less than satisfied with anything less than two gold medals. Ross and I have a good understanding and we both know one of us can pull the other out of trouble if it’s ever needed. Before the Worlds last year, we hadn’t practiced too much together because of our schedules so the fact we’ve been able to practice more going into the Europeans means I’m feeling confident about our chances of getting gold rather than just being stood on the podium.”
BPTT Performance Director Gorazd Vecko is also confident that his team is ready to take on the best in Europe.
“We’ve had some good results this season and the training camps have all gone to plan,” he said. “Obviously, the players are very excited to play in the first ever major Para table tennis competition to be held in Great Britain, especially as it is in Sheffield which is the home of British Para table tennis. This is also about qualification for Paris 2024 and I believe that Europe is the strongest continent in Para table tennis at this moment so it will be difficult to get gold medals in the singles events, but any medal will help towards Paralympic qualification. We had great success in doubles at the World Championships in Spain last year and we have very good chances to take medals in a lot of classes in Sheffield.”
While the 14 athletes in the Performance squad will be chasing medals and Paralympic qualification, for the four Pathway athletes the Europeans will provide valuable experience at this early stage in their careers.
“I’m really proud of our Pathway programme,” said Vecko. “In the past six years Joshua Stacey, Billy Shilton, Megan Shackleton, Fliss Pickard, Tom Matthews, Martin Perry and Grace Williams have all come through to take medals at major championships. Now we have another four players who are knocking on the door of the Performance squad – Bly Twomey, Chris Ryan, Romain Simon and Theo Bishop. Competing in the Europeans will be great motivation for them and a huge investment in their future careers in Para table tennis. You can really see they have that extra something that Performance athletes need to have, and I believe that these are the next players that will compete for GB in future Paralympic Games.”
The British team for the ITTF European Para Table Tennis Championships is as follows:
Aaron McKibbin, 31 (32 on August 27), London (Wandsworth)/Epsom
Events: men’s singles class 8, men’s doubles class 14 (with Martin Perry)
Ashley Facey, 28, London (Stratford)/Sheffield
Events: men’s singles class 9, men’s doubles class 18 (with Will Bayley), mixed doubles class 17 (with Grace Williams)
Billy Shilton, 24, Stonehouse (Gloucester)/Sheffield
Events: men’s singles class 8, men’s doubles class 14 (with Paul Karabardak), mixed doubles class 14 (with Fliss Pickard)
Bly Twomey, 13, Brighton
Events: women’s singles class 7, mixed doubles class 14 (with Will Bayley)
Chris Ryan, 32, Welwyn Garden City
Events: men’s singles class 2
Felicity Pickard, 29, Burnley/Sheffield
Events: women’s singles class 6, women’s doubles class 14 (with Grace Williams), mixed doubles class 14 (with Billy Shilton)
Grace Williams, 20, Llanfyllin/Sheffield
Events: women’s singles class 8, women’s doubles class 14 (with Fliss Pickard), mixed doubles class 17 (with Ashley Facey)
Jack Hunter-Spivey, 28, Liverpool/Sheffield
Events: men’s singles class 5, mixed doubles class 10 (with Megan Shackleton)
Josh Stacey, 23, Cardiff/Sheffield
Events: men’s singles class 9, men’s doubles class 18 (with Ross Wilson)
Martin Perry, 29, Paisley/Dumbarton
Events: men’s singles class 6, men’s doubles class 14 (with Aaron McKibbin)
Megan Shackleton, 24, Todmorden/Sheffield
Events: women’s singles class 4, mixed doubles class 10 (with Jack Hunter-Spivey)
Paul Karabardak, 37, Swansea
Events: men’s singles class 6, men’s doubles class 14 (with Billy Shilton)
Rob Davies, 39, Brecon
Events: men’s singles class 1
Romain Simon, 34, Leyton/Chigwell
Events: men’s singles class 3, men’s doubles class 4 (with Tom Matthews)
Ross Wilson, 28, Minster/Sheffield
Events: men’s singles class 8, men’s doubles class 18 (with Joshua Stacey)
Theo Bishop, 20, Rossendale/Sheffield
Events: men’s singles class 7
Tom Matthews, 31, Aberdare
Events: men’s singles class 1, men’s doubles class 4 (with Romain Simon)
Will Bayley, 35, Tunbridge Wells/Brighton
Events: men’s singles class 7, men’s doubles class 18 (with Ashley Facey), mixed doubles class 14 (with Bly Twomey)
Tickets for the ITTF European Para Table Tennis Championships 2023 in Sheffield from September 4-9 can be purchased from www.seetickets.com