Liam Pitchford earned a first ever English appearance in a singles gold medal match at the Commonwealth Games as he sunk India’s Sathiyan Gnanasekaran in the semi-finals today.
Paul Drinkhall could not join him, going down to Sharath Kamal Achanta, also of India, in the other semi-final – Drinkhall has the chance to win bronze against Gnanasekaran tomorrow.
Pictures by Michael Loveder
Drinkhall was on first against Sharath Kamal Achanta, the 2006 singles champion and a bronze medallist in Gold Coast last time out.
Achanta started on a mission to extend that record and add to his overall total of 11 Commonwealth Games medals – the most recent the silver he won just a couple of hours previously in the doubles.
The 40-year-old moved beautifully early on, getting into position early and varying his power and placement expertly to make Drinkhall play his way.
Achanta took the first 11-8, including bringing up three game points in a rally which saw a couple of superb returns which Drinkhall had no right to expect to come back.
When the Indian won the first three points in the second, there was an early timeout call by the English. Drinkhall went off court to sit next to coach Gavin Evans – no suggestion of anything untoward, they just appeared to want an up-close conversation.
The rest of the game saw the two players exchange blows in equal measure, but it was Achanta who moved out to 10-7 courtesy of a notable exchange which saw Drinkhall blunting his opponent’s attack with sterling defence, only to just miss the back edge when he tried to turn defence into attack.
Drinkhall saved one game point but got tucked up by a fierce forehand into his body and had to go back to his corner on the wrong end of another 11-8 game.
There was no doubt Drinkhall needed to stem the flow by winning the third, and that he did, building a 5-1 lead and beginning to rediscover his form from earlier in the tournament to move out to an 11-8 winning score, one memorable forehand winner followed by a full-throated ‘cho’ from Drinkhall and a roar from the crowd.
Had the tide turned? Unfortunately not as Achanta continued to keep a high level, winning the fourth 11-7.
Again, Paul fought back, keeping his nose in front through the fifth all the way to 9-8 and then earning two game points as Achanta found the net – he took the second.
The start to that game had seen Drinkhall set the all-important tone and get points on the board early, but the next was a different story as he went 5-0 down.
It would always be a long way back chasing from that position, but Drinkhall took the next three points and Achanta took his timeout.
The Indian was aided by a dead net cord the next point and the two continued to trade blows – a laser-guided winner into the corner by Drinkhall answered next point by a jet-propelled winner by Achanta which burst through Drinkhall’s defences.
Still Achanta stayed in front, bringing up three match points with another powerful drive which Paul could not control.
The first match point was saved with a trademark forehand flick, but when Paul found the net next point, his golden dream was over.
Drinkhall said: “I let him control the game. He’s a very good, very experienced player. I’m not taking anything away from him. He played really well and got the tactics right. I didn’t.”
So, could Pitchford make it England 1 India 1 and take a place in the gold medal match?
He certainly started the right way, winning the opening game 11-5 and absolutely flying by the end of it.
So when Gnansekaran hit back 11-4 in the second, it was a bit of a surprise. Despite the scoreline, Pitchford had not really dropped his level – Gnanasekaran just got on one of those streaks that can happen at this level.
As if to ram home that point, Pitchford blasted out to a 3-0 lead and soon extended it to 7-2 in the third. He came out on top of a blistering exchange to move to 8-4, whipping up the crowd. Moving from 9-7 to 10-7, he gave Gnanasekaran a bit of a gimme with one that sat up to be hit, but a thrilling counter-punch saw Pitchford somehow wrestle the point back from the Indian’s grasp. Two points later, the game was his 11-8.
The fourth was nip and tuck as neither player had more than a one-point advantage, but Pitchford nipped in front for the first time at 8-7, prompting a timeout from his opponent.
It didn’t serve its purpose, Pitchford staying in front and taking his second game point – 11-9.
There was a sense now that Pitchford’s level was not going to drop, and Gnanasekaran certainly looked demoralised as Pitchford moved out to 9-3.
When 9-3 became 9-6, Gavin Evans in the corner called timeout. Pitchford tightened up a little and it was suddenly 9-9 after a huge top edge at 9-8.
No matter – Pitchford’s mental strength has been growing and growing through the tournament and – as he said himself afterwards – he played two world-class points at 9-9 to book that historic place in tomorrow’s final.
He faces Achanta at 11.55am tomorrow. Before that, Drinkhall takes on Gnanasekaran at 11.05 – England versus India all over again.
After the match, PItchford said: “I’m ecstatic. I’m relieved to get over the line, a bit nervy at the end.
“I’m enjoying being out there again. Even there, from being 9-3 to 9-9, I played two really world-class points at 9-9 and two weeks ago that’s something I’d never have done.
“Just that in itself makes me happy. I’ve played a lot of matches and that helps me get confidence and I’m gaining confidence by the day. Tomorrow’s one more big push.
“It’ll be a difficult game. He’s playing really well at a really top level, because Paul [Drinkhall] has been unbelievable all tournament and he’s gone and beat him.
“I’ll just go out there and be positive and if I do that I’ve got a chance.”
Sharath Kamal Achanta (IND) bt Paul Drinkhall 4-2 (11-8, 11-8, 8-11, 11-7, 9-11, 11-8)
Liam Pitchcford bt Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (IND) 4-1 (11-5, 4-11, 11-8, 11-9, 11-9)