On a day of high temperatures in Lasko it proved to be tough going for the British Para Table Tennis team at the Slovenia Para Open but although there were no medals from the doubles events there was plenty of promise on show for the future.
Men’s, women’s and mixed doubles events have now replaced team events in all international Para table tennis competitions, including the Paralympic Games. The category for pairs in doubles events is determined with a maximum number obtained by combining the class numbers of the two players meaning new partnerships which are still very much a work in progress.
After their win against Croatia yesterday class 8 Ross Wilson and class 9 Joshua Stacey secured top place in their group with a 3-0 win against the Austrian pair of Christian Scheiber, the class 7 former Hungarian Open champion, and Krisztian Gardos, the class 10 World number seven and Rio 2016 Paralympic bronze medallist. In the last 16 they were unlucky to come up against the very strong Polish partnership of class 8 former World and Paralympic team gold medallist Piotr Grudzien and the class 10 World number four Igor Misztal who took the first set 11-8. Wilson and Stacey led 10-7 in the second but lost it 13-11 and never really recovered, losing the third 11-7 and the match 3-0.
Having started their partnership by winning gold in the Costa Brava Spanish Open in March it was a huge disappointment for the British pair, who nevertheless have a great future together.
“I think if we had managed to get ourselves back in the game by winning that second set it would have meant that we would have gained a bit of confidence and they would have lost a bit they gained from the first,” said Stacey. “I feel as though they built on confidence with every set they won so winning the second would have flipped it in our favour.”
“I think we just need more time to work together,” said Wilson. “In Spain it went really well and here we have fallen a bit short but that happens in matches and sport. It has not been the strongest competition for me but we’ll bounce back from this. It is a learning curve – it always is in this sport – and we’ll use it as a positive to know what we want to work on going forwards.”
Rio 2016 Paralympic champion Will Bayley teamed up with Jochen Wollmert, the three-time World champion who memorably beat Bayley in the men’s class 7 final in London 2012 to win the last of his three Paralympic singles titles. Now 57 years old, the German has decided this season will be his last although he retains all his unique ability and competitive spirit.
The pair started their competition yesterday with a 3-1 win over the American pair of class 6 Paralympic champion Ian Seidenfeld and class 7 Masoud Mojtahed, the two-time PanAmerican team champion. They won their group with a 3-0 win against class 8 Johannes Urban and class 6 European bronze medallist Thomas Rau from Germany and were 3-0 winners in the last 16 against Jose Vargas Pirajan, the class 7 PanAmerican medallist from Colombia, and Miroslav Jambor from Slovakia, the class 7 European bronze medallist. That took them through to a quarterfinal against the class 7 partnership of three-time PanAmerican champion Paulo Salmin Filho and Rio 2016 silver medallist Israel Pereira Stroh and the Brazilian pair had just too much power although Bayley and Wollmert as ever went down fighting 3-1.
“It’s been amazing to play with Jochen,” said an emotional Bayley. “I knew it was going to be special because this is his last season and it is tough to lose because I really wanted to win for him as he is such a legend. Maybe I wanted it too much and forced it at certain times. When I first started playing table tennis he is the person I looked up to and that makes it very emotional. He is just a special talent and for me the greatest Paralympic table tennis player I have ever seen because of the things he can do on the table. I’ve trained with him and I’ve never seen anyone play like him and that is why I think he is the most special player I’ve ever played with. That is why I really wanted to win because he deserves it and it was an honour to play with him.”
Playing together for the first time class 8 Aaron McKibbin and class 6 Martin Perry came through a tough five-set battle against class 6 Valentin Kneuss from Switzerland and class 8 Fredrik Johansen from Norway last night and had to work hard against the Colombian/Slovakian pair of Vargas Pirajan and Jambor to secure a 3-1 win. They went through to the knockout stages as group winners after a 3-0 win over the class 7 pair of Naazim Javed Khan and Sanjeev Hammannavar from India and took on class 7 Hiromoto Kita and World team bronze medallist Katsuyoshi Yagi from Japan in the last 16. McKibbin and Perry saved match points in the fourth set before taking it 13-11 to level at 2-2 but the Japanese pair were always in command in the final set and took it 11-5 and the match 3-2.
“We are a new partnership and I think we did a few things really well,” said Perry. “With the practice we’ve done back in Sheffield we know we’re a good doubles partnership but it has just not quite clicked here to get over the line in that last match. We’re both gutted because we thought we could go quite far in this tournament but I think there are some good things for the future and I think we could make a strong partnership and hopefully be up there winning medals one day soon.”
“I felt confident going in to the fifth set,” said McKibbin, “but to be fair to Japan they both played some unbelievable shots. For me, this was the first time playing with a lower category. I’m used to playing with Billy (Shilton) and Ross (Wilson) and we know each other’s game inside out but Martin is a completely different style so that was tough to work out how to give him the best opportunity to play his best table tennis. I enjoyed playing with him and he fights for every point. We gave it our best but credit to Japan they were better today.”
Class 7 Pathway athlete Theo Bishop teamed up with Gabriel Seguin, the 22-year-old class 6 from Canada. They lost their first match to the class 6 pair of World team champion Alberto Seoane Alcarez from Spain and former PanAmerican champion Cristian Dettoni from Chile in three close sets and were again competitive against the class 7 Swedish pair of Jonas Hansson and Sam Gustafsson despite a 3-0 loss. After losing the first two sets against class 6 European team bronze medallist Esteban Herrault and class 8 Tokyo Paralympic team bronze medallist Clement Berthier from France 11-3, 11-4 they put up a great fight in the third before going down 14-12.
“I’ve never played with Gabriel and it has been a really good learning experience,” said 18-year-old Bishop. “In doubles I’m usually the one with less mobility so it’s been a new experience to be the one who is doing more of the moving and being more aggressive.”
Class 5 Jack Hunter-Spivey and his class 3 partner from Ukraine Vasyl Petruniv, the World and European team medallist, lost their opening match yesterday to Isak Nyholm from Sweden and Benjamin Marotte from Belgium in three close sets but they combined really well to defeat the experienced German pair of Jan Guertler, class 3 former European team champion and three-time Paralympic team medallist, and Thomas Bruechle, class 3 World number five and Tokyo, Rio and London Paralympic team silver medallist 3-1 and then beat class 3 Shmuel Ben Asor, 2021 French Open bronze medallist, and class 2 Chen Baruch from Israel 3-0. They were unlucky to lose out on a place in the last 16 on countback.
Pathway athletes Andrew Guy, class 2, and Lee York, class 4, lost their opening match yesterday to the Serbian pair of class 3 Mladen Ciric and class 5 European silver medallist Mitar Palikuca from Serbia 3-0 and they did not progress after a 3-0 loss to the class 3 pair of World team bronze medallist Roberto Rodriguez and 19-year-old Iker Gonzalez from Spain and a 3-0 loss to class 5 former European champion Nicolas Savant-Aira from France and class 3 former World and European team medallist Maciej Nalepka from Poland.
“We’ve played together a few times and done well at home but obviously it is a different level here,” said York. “Doubles is a completely different game to singles – it is a lot more backhand dominant, whereas in singles you get moved around the table more, and the ball might get played to one person more than the other so you have to stay switched on when the ball comes to you.”
“We have played together a few times but it takes time to gel with each other’s styles,” said Guy, “and we’ll continue to work on that.”
Class 6 Fliss Pickard and class 8 Pathway athlete Grace Williams lost 3-0 to the Asian champions, class 7 World number five Kim Seongok and class 6 World number five Lee Kunwoo from Korea, and 3-0 to Lucie Hautiere from France, the class 8 Egypt Open gold medallist, and class 6 Moon Sung Keum from Korea, gold medallist in the Tokyo World Qualification Tournament last year, who took the match 13-11 in the third.
“Fliss and I work well together and we were really competitive,” said Williams. “I’ve played with Lucie so I know her weaknesses and her strengths so we were trying to work against that, and she was obviously trying to do the same to me and unfortunately she got the better of us today but we live and we learn.”
Bayley was on the other side of the net to Wollmert in the quarterfinal of the mixed doubles XD14 and the German and his compatriot Stephanie Grebe, the class 6 two-time World and Paralympic medallist, just had the edge over Bayley and Pickard in three close sets although the British pair saved seven match points before losing the third set 11-9.
The full list of British athletes competing in Slovenia is:
Will Bayley, 34, - Tunbridge Wells/Brighton (class 7)
Theo Bishop, 18 - Bury (class 7)
Jack Hunter-Spivey, 27 - Liverpool/Sheffield (class 5)
Andrew Guy, 37 - Bovey Tracey (class 2)
Tom Matthews, 29 - Aberdare (class 1)
Aaron McKibbin, 30 - London/Epsom (class 8)
Martin Perry, 28 - Paisley/Dumbarton (class 6)
Fliss Pickard, 27 - Burnley/Sheffield (class 6)
Billy Shilton, 23 - Stonehouse/Sheffield (class 8)
Joshua Stacey, 22 - Cardiff/Sheffield (class 9)
Grace Williams, 19 - Wrexham/Sheffield (class 8)
Ross Wilson, 26 - Minster/Sheffield (class 8)
Lee York, 33 - Wakefield (class 4)