World champion Will Bayley started his Paralympic qualification year in style by retaining his men’s class 7 singles title in the ITTF Slovenia Para Open in Lasko today. Commonwealth champion Jack Hunter-Spivey celebrated his 28th birthday by taking silver in men’s class 5 and there were bronze medals for Tom Matthews (men’s class 1), Aaron McKibbin (men’s class 8), Ross Wilson (men’s class 8) and Fliss Pickard (women’s class 6).
Men’s class 7
Bayley lost the first set in the semi-final today against the Polish World number seven Maksym Chudzicki but took the next two 11-5 11-8 to lead 2-1. The fourth set was nip and tuck and Chudzicki had set point at 10-9 but Bayley saved it and took the set 12-10 and the match 3-1.
His opponent in the final was Katsuyoshi Yagi, the World number eight from Japan. Bayley had won their three previous matches but the last of those was in 2018 and Yagi came into the tournament on the back of beating a strong field in the Montenegro Para Championships last week.
Bayley led 10-7 in the first but lost the next five points and the set 12-10 and looked to be in trouble at 6-3 down in the second but he slowly worked his way back into the match and after taking the set 11-9 to level at 1-1 he took the third 11-7 and the fourth 11-8 for a 3-1 win.
“He’s changed his style since I played him five years ago,” said Bayley. “He’s got anti-spin on the backhand, which is a style I’ve never played against, and it took me two sets to get used to it. He’s also a good player – he’s one of the best players in the world at the moment so I’m just pleased to get the win. He’s a really intense character and I think I am, so it made for a good match.
“I feel that I am improving mentally more than anything. If I played that match five years ago I would maybe have lost 3-0 but I tell myself that I have to respect the opponent. He’s a really good player so it’s not so bad that I’m losing; I’ve just got to find a way to try and win. That is table tennis and that is sport – sometimes people just play well. Telling myself that relaxed me, and I thought ‘hopefully he’ll stop playing well and I’ll get back into it’ and luckily that did happen.”
Bayley went through last season undefeated in men’s class 7 culminating in a second World title in Spain and is focused on regaining the European title that he last won in 2011 later this year.
“I don’t think about last year,” he said, “it doesn’t count so it is good to start a new year fresh with a win. The most important tournament for me this year is the Europeans in Sheffield – it’s home and it’s a major so I want to be really up for that. I haven’t won a European title for a long time so it would be nice to try and do my best there, but it was so important for me to do well here with the Chinese here and all the best players in the world.”
Men’s class 5
Hunter-Spivey played the improving Elias Romero in the semi-final and the World number 10 from Argentina took the first set 11-7 before Hunter-Spivey found his range and raced through the next two sets 11-2 11-3 to lead 2-1. Romero rallied in the fourth and had set point at 10-9 but he went long with his forehand and Hunter-Spivey went on to take the set 13-11 and the match 3-1.
That took him through to the final to face Valentin Baus, the 27-year-old World and Paralympic champion. The pair have met numerous times and Baus led the head-to-head 16-5 with Hunter-Spivey’s last win coming in Slovenia four years ago. The German World number one started well and took the first set 11-6 but Hunter-Spivey took the second 11-9 to level at 1-1. Baus took the third 11-8 with a lucky net cord and completed a 3-1 win, 11-5 in the fourth.
“I feel I stuck to the game plan fairly well in patches,” said Hunter-Spivey, “although I strayed from it a little bit. Baus is an unbelievable player – he’s the current World and Paralympic champion – but I’m not a million miles away from that level and I can definitely beat him. It’s a little bit frustrating to not come away with the win but overall, I’m happy with my tournament – if you would have told me before we started that I would be in the final I would have bitten your hand off.
“After I won big medals like Tokyo and the Commonwealths and then had a disappointing loss in the Worlds I’ve been battling with demons within myself – can I play that level again? But I think this tournament I’ve proved to myself and to other people that if I fight as hard as I can I’ve still got that level in me and I’ve got more levels to go. I feel that I can improve even more now. I really feed off the big matches and the crowds and the adrenalin of matches and I think a home Europeans will be perfect for that. I’m really looking forward to doing the best I can in the Europeans and see what happens.”
Men’s class 1
Tom Matthews had only won one set in five previous matches against the 2018 World champion Kim Hyeon Uk and he made a great start today taking the first set 11-8. He led 10-7 in the second but could not convert any of his set points and the World number two from Korea edged it 13-11 and went on to take the match 3-1.
“The second set was massive,” admitted Matthews. “Me and Neil (coach Neil Robinson) have talked about it and maybe we should have called a timeout at 10-9 and reset but that is a learning curve. It’s back to the training hall and next time we’ll have him. There are more positives than negatives coming away from here. We know we can take the Koreans out; they are a strong force, but we are even stronger and when they come back we’ll be ready.”
Men’s class 8
Aaron McKibbin also made a great start in his semi-final taking the first set against the World champion Viktor Didukh 11-3. The pair last met at the same stage in the World Championships last year when the Ukrainian World number one won in four sets and he managed to turn the match around, changing his tactics and pushing McKibbin out of his rhythm to take the next three sets 11-9 11-3 11-6 for a 3-1 win.
“He did the same to me at the Worlds last year,” said McKibbin, “and I was ready for it and knew what was going to come but it is hard to stop it. The reason he is the World number one is he is very good at mixing it up when he is struggling and in the first set, he didn’t know what was going on. It highlights a few things I need to work on, and I keep saying it is a matter of time but I genuinely feel it is coming soon. I can see he doesn’t like playing me and I do like playing him, but it is hard to get over the line against him. This tournament is stronger than Paris and definitely stronger than the Worlds with China being here, so I’m really pleased to be on the medal podium again and show that when the pressure is on in the big tournaments I perform and I’m proud of that.”
Ross Wilson won a memorable five set match against Zhao Shuai to win the World title in 2018 and it was five sets again when the pair last met in Tokyo where the Chinese former World number one won his third consecutive Paralympic title. Zhao took the first set 11-7 but Wilson came back to win the second 11-9 and levelled again at 2-2 after his opponent had taken a 2-1 lead. Zhao always just had the edge in the deciding set and he took it 11-6 for a 3-2 win but Wilson can be proud of his performance in his first international tournament since taking bronze in last year’s World Championships.
“I think he just adjusted his style a bit in the fifth set,” said Wilson. “I’m happy with how I’ve played here. I think I could have performed a bit better in that match and I think I was a bit inconsistent and that has frustrated me so that was disappointing, but he is a fantastic player. We’ve played so many times and we always have a close game and today it wasn’t my day and hats off to him for managing to change his style and adapt to the game. There are lots of positives to take – there is a lot to work on going forward now so it is definitely motivating, and I’m just disappointed I couldn’t quite get that performance in this time.”
Women’s class 6
After fighting back so bravely to win her quarterfinal yesterday World doubles champion Fliss Pickard took on World number one Maryna Lytovchenko in her semi-final and the World and Paralympic champion from Ukraine was at her best in a 3-0 win.
“It was fantastic to have the opportunity to go out there and try and perform,” said Pickard. “It has definitely hit home that I want to go away now and work even harder because she was incredible. She played amazingly well especially with everything that is going on back in her country and full respect to her. I think I can be proud of the way I’ve conducted myself at this tournament particularly in Slovenia where I’ve found it tough in the past. To be in the medals again I’m proving time and again that I’m consistent to stay within the medals and I can be pleased with that. It is just about getting to that great level instead of good now.”
Men’s class 9
Competing in his second tournament since returning from a year off to pursue a career in cycling Ashley Facey lost a tight opening set in his quarterfinal 13-11 but took the second 11-6 to level against Daniel Gustafsson. The European bronze medallist from Sweden produced some great defensive play to frustrate Facey and took the third 11-9 and the fourth 11-6 for a 3-1 win.
“I was a bit stubborn,” said Facey, “because I’ve played him a few times and won, and I thought I knew how to play him but he had done his homework and changed his tactics. I still stayed stubborn and thought ‘no I can win this the way I normally win’ and I knew how to get back into the match, but it was a bit too late. It was a good match and I’m happy to get to the quarters at such a strong tournament – obviously I wanted more but I couldn’t do it today. I’m content with where I am at the moment – I’d like to be better but I’ve got to train more and see what I can do. But I’m happy with how I’m playing and I’ve just got to keep going.”
The tournament continues with the doubles events which start tomorrow and conclude on Saturday.
The full list of British athletes competing in Slovenia is:
Will Bayley, 35, – Tunbridge Wells/Brighton (class 7)
Theo Bishop, 19 – Bury (class 7)
Rob Davies, 38 – Brecon (class 1)
Ashley Facey, 28 – London/Sheffield (class 9)
Jack Hunter-Spivey, 28 – Liverpool/Sheffield (class 5)
Paul Karabardak, 37 – Swansea (class 6)
Tom Matthews, 30 – Aberdare (class 1)
Aaron McKibbin, 31 – London/Epsom (class 8)
Martin Perry, 29 – Paisley/Dumbarton (class 6)
Fliss Pickard, 28 – Burnley/Sheffield (class 6)
Megan Shackleton, 24 – Todmorden/Sheffield (class 4)
Billy Shilton, 24 – Stonehouse/Sheffield (class 8)
Romain Simon, 33, South Woodford (class 3)
Joshua Stacey, 23 – Cardiff/Sheffield (class 9)
Grace Williams, 20 – Wrexham/Sheffield (class 8)
Ross Wilson, 27 – Minster/Sheffield (class 8)
Lee York, 34 – Wakefield (class 4)