Paul Drinkhall missed out on a Commonwealth Games bronze medal despite a battling, brilliant performance which saw him come so close to completing one of the great Games comebacks.

Trailing India’s Sathiyan Gnanasekaran 3-0 and looking out of contention, Drinkhall got the wind in his sails and came back to 3-3. It stood at 9-9 in the decider but that was as close as Drinkhall got as Gnanasekaran won the next two points to take the final step on the podium.

What seemed an age before those last few, crucial points, Drinkhall’s run of five points took him into a 7-5 lead in the first game. He also led 8-6, but Gnanasekaran took the next four – the last of them with the aid of a side-edge – to bring up two game points. He took the second of them to get the first blow in.

The second game saw a consistently high level from Gnanasekaran, moving Paul around, returning everything and seldom missing. It was an 11-3 game which probably wasn’t an unfair reflection of the level the Indian found.

When Gnanasekaran engineered a 4-1 lead in the third, Drinkhall called a timeout. It helped him come back to 4-5, when his opponent called timeout. That one had a more lasting impact, Gnanasekaran going on to win the game 11-5 and leave Drinkhall with an awful lot to do.

At 3-5 down in the fourth, things looked bleak, but Drinkhall won the next point with a superbly angled backhand block into the corner and took a celebratory ‘lap of honour’, arm aloft.

He strung together five more brilliant points, going toe to toe in high-tempo rallies and putting away winners. Suddenly, the Drinkhall of a couple of days ago was back and the crowd responded.

Gnanasekaran clawed back but at 9-8, the game was still there for Drinkhall to win – which he did, with a thumping forehand down the line sealing the deal.

Gnanasekaran started the fifth with a thin side edge – arguably, he enjoyed the lion’s share of the luck – but Drinkhall kept some momentum going from the fourth, beautifully changing the pace by throwing in a backhand chop to force an error in one lengthy rally as he pulled out a 4-1 lead.
After losing the point at 4-2, Drinkhall was given a harsh yellow card for kicking the ball away. A discussion with the umpire followed and the assistant referee was called, but the yellow stood.

Gnansekaran won the next two points but Drinkhall quickly got his mojo back and the two exchanged points to 7-7. Two to Gnanasekaran, Drinkhall responded with a forehand winner and then the Indian netted – 9-9.

Drinkhall in action in the bronze medal match (picture by Michael Loveder)

A little help from a faint net cord and a precision forehand gave Drinkhall game point and Gnanasekaran flicked the net and went long. 3-2.

The sixth set ignited after a lengthy point of Drinhall lobbing to return his opponent’s smashes. Gnanasekaran eventually put one away to make it 4-4, but Drinkhall went on a blistering run of five points. Then he tightened up a bit, missing a couple and seeing his opponent find his range again. Suddenly, it was 9-9.

Gnanasekaran netted, the crowd roared. Paul netted, the crowd groaned. 10-10.

The next rally almost defied belief, Drinkhall at full strength somehow, anyhow, getting ball after ball back and Gnanasekaran eventually missing. The loudest roar so far – exceeded 30 seconds later when Gnanasekaran went long. 3-3. Would he, could he, do it?

A couple of loose shots from Drinkhall and a clean winner from Gnanasekaran saw Drinkhall 4-0 down in the decider. Was his chance slipping away?

An absolute stone-dead net cord in favour of the Indian did not improve Drinkhall’s chances, Paul then went just long on the receive and then netted. 1-7 and surely too much to do?

One point at a time, he edged back to 5-7. Gnanasekaran smashed a forehand away to make it 8-5.

Two more to Drinkhall then a forehand flick brought him level. It took an age for the crowd to settle down. It took even long a point later – Paul was now two points away from a medal.

Drinkhall drifts a chopped backhand just long, both men two points away from a medal.

Paul’s return misses, can have save a match point? His return sits up, Gnanasekaran smashes an unreturnable forehand and there was to be no medal for Drinkhall at the end of surely one of the great matches in the Games’ history.

Afterwards Drinkhall reflected on the match: “I think I gave everything I had to give, and found something a little bit too late. Even in the last set I gave myself a chance, but when you go 3-0 down even when you get back to even terms it’s still very hard to not put a foot wrong in the last 4 sets.” 

“At 3-0 down I tried to enjoy the experience a bit more, the first few sets I was I was over thinking, but when I experienced the crowd and the atmosphere, I relaxed a little bit. There has been really good support all the time and we like an underdog in England, at 3-0 down that’s what I was and I almost pulled it off.

“I was just trying to use everything I could, like changing t-shirt, everything within the rules to try to win the game, I need to slow it down at times and speed it up and the support from the crowd really helped.

“It’s difficult right now to think too positively but overall, I’m very happy with how I’ve performed.  Obviously, I’ve lost two important matches but I’ve performed very well and can look back take a lot of positives from the whole tournament.”


Men’s Singles
Bronze medal match

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (IND) bt Paul Drinkhall 4-3 (11-9, 11-3, 11-5, 8-11, 9-11, 10-12, 11-9)