The British Para table tennis team took four medals in the doubles events on the final day of competition in the Lignano Masters Para Open in Italy and there were also some promising performances from other new combinations at the start of the qualification period for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.
Aaron McKibbin (pictured above) and Ashley Facey took silver in men’s class 18, Fliss Pickard took bronze in women’s class 14 with her Hungarian partner Zsofia Arloy, Jack Hunter-Spivey and Megan Shackleton took bronze in mixed class 10 and McKibbin and Pickard combined to take bronze in mixed class 14.
If follows the gold won by Pickard, plus bronzes for Hunter-Spivey, Rob Davies and Martin Perry in the singles competitions.
“The doubles has been really good,” said McKibbin, who was disappointed to lose in the quarter-finals of the singles, “and I had a lot of fun in both. Ash and I played really well and had a good win against Poland.
“It was good for Ash’s first tournament back and even though he has been off for a year it felt like we clicked straight away. We had a bit of a hard start but with each match we got better.
“The final was tough – Hungary played a really good game and we weren’t fully on it to be honest, which was a shame as we didn’t play to the level we did in the semi-final. It’s the first tournament of the year so something to build on.
“Fliss and I had a good competition and she worked really hard. It was tough in the semi-final – the style of play is so different playing mixed doubles compared to men’s doubles but again it’s something to build on for the next tournament. Hopefully in Greece I can have a better singles and keep moving forward.”
Although disappointed to lose the final Facey was delighted with silver in his first tournament back since taking a year away from the sport to pursue a career in cycling.
“It’s good to be back,” said Facey. “I’m happy with a silver although I’m gutted because I didn’t really play well in the final. To be fair Hungary played quite well and me and Aaron tried to keep it going. It was good to play with Aaron – he is a good player and a good doubles player, and it’s been really fun to play with him.
“I played well in the singles – I was sad that I didn’t get to the semi-finals, but I gave it my all. It’s the first time I’ve lost to Didier which was hard to take because I normally do well against him, but he played well. I’ve been out of the game for a while so it’s good to be back and I’m grateful to the team for a lot of things and they’ve been really helpful getting me back to match fitness. I’ll keep on training for the next eight weeks until Slovenia then we go again.”
In their first tournament together Hunter-Spivey and Shackleton showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with in mixed doubles.
“We did well, to be fair, and I think we’ve got a great partnership,” said Hunter-Spivey. “I’m really looking forward to the Europeans later this year and we beat one of the best teams in the world in the group stage. Meg has played really well and I’m really proud of her.”
“I’m really pleased to get a bronze with Jack especially in our first tournament together,” said Shackleton, who missed a year of competition after Tokyo due to injury. “I think it shows we are quite a strong partnership, and everything looks good going into the Europeans this year.
“It was nice to bounce back after a disappointing singles; even though I didn’t think my level was bad I can see there are a few things to work on in training but I’m confident I can turn things around for the next competition.”
Men’s class 18
Ashley Facey and Aaron McKibbin were playing together here for the first time and they were made to fight in their first match by the Nigerian pair of Alabi Olufemi and Ibrahim Soares before securing a 3-2 win, 11-6 in the fifth. They beat Hi Ming-Fu and Su Jin Sian from Chinese Taipei 3-1 and went through to the knockout stages as group winners after a 3-0 win against Alen Becirevic and Luka Trtnik from Slovenia.
Facey and McKibbin came through their quarter-final against Marko Vracan and Borna Zohil from Croatia 3-0 and then produced a great performance to beat the No 1 seeds from Poland class 10 European bronze medallist Igor Misztal and class 8 European bronze medallist Piotr Grudzien. After having two match points saved in the third set, which the Polish pair edged 14-12, they took the match 11-7 in the fourth.
They could not quite produce that form in the final against the experienced Hungarian pair of Dezso Bereczki and Andras Csonka. At 2-0, 10-8 down Facey and McKibbin rallied to take the third set 13-11 but the greater consistency of the Hungarian pair proved decisive and they took the fourth set 11-6 and the match 3-1.
Women’s class 14
World doubles champion Fliss Pickard teamed up with the class 8 world No 5 Zsofia Arloy from Hungary and they started with a 3-0 win against Nora Korneliussen from Norway and Seo Wha Young from Korea. They bounced back from a 3-0 loss to Smilla Sand and Cajsa Stadler from Sweden by defeating Magdalena Sutkowska Pawlasek and Barbara Jablonka, taking the deciding fifth set 11-8 having led 2-0 before the Polish pair fought back to level at 2-2. Pickard and Arloy fought hard against Morgen Caillaud and Lucie Hautiere from France in their final match but had to be content with bronze after a 3-1 loss.
Mixed class 10
Jack Hunter-Spivey and Megan Shackleton made a great start to their new partnership by defeating the number two seeds from Korea class 3 Jang Yeongjin and women’s class 5 world No 1 Jung Young A 3-2, coming back from 2-1 down to win the deciding set 11-6. They secured top place in their group with a 3-0 win against Nemamja Curic and Sanja Mijatovic from Serbia which earned them a bye into the semi-finals where they faced another Korean pair in Park Jae Hyeon and women’s class 5 former world champion Kang Oejeong. After dropping the first they played really well to take the next two 11-6, 11-4 before the Korean pair levelled at 2-2 and took the match 11-6 in the fifth.
Mixed class 14
Aaron McKibbin and Fliss Pickard won their first match together against Sam Gustafsson and Smilla Sand from Sweden 3-1 and then came through a close match against Krizander Magnussen and Nora Korneliussen 3-2, taking the deciding set 11-5 after the Norwegian pair had twice levelled the match.
As group winners they received a bye into the semi-finals where they took on Nicklas Westerberg and Emelie Endre. They raced through the second set 11-2 to level at 1-1 but the Swedish pair took the next two for a 3-1 win.
Men’s class 4
Playing together for the first time here Tom Matthews and Pathway athlete Romain Simon lost their opening match to Peter Lovas and Lukas Klizan from Slovakia 3-0 and then combined well to beat Adam Urlauber and Endre Major from Hungary 3-1. They fought back well from 2-0 down to level against Julien Michaud and Benoit Besset but the French pair took the deciding set 11-4 to take second place in the group. The British pair did not progress after finishing third but it was a promising start to another new partnership for the British team.
Men’s class 8
Self-funded Simon Heaps teamed up with Manuel Fortuzzi from Italy. They lost 3-0 to Ryota Nakamura from Japan and Adjal Yorick from France but were then involved in a great battle against Primoz Kancler and Bojan Lukezic from Slovenia, twice coming back to level and just losing out in the deciding set 13-11. They did not progress to the knockout stages after a 3-0 loss in their final match to Krszysztof Zylka and Rafal Lis from Poland.
Men’s class 14
World doubles champion Billy Shilton and partner Martin Perry secured top place in their group with 3-0 wins against the Portuguese/Icelandic combination of Joao Cardosa and Bjorgvin Olafsson and the Croatian pair of Pavao Jozic and Vjekoslav Gregorovic. They received a bye into the quarter-finals and missed out on a medal after a 3-2 defeat by Emil Andersson and Michael Azulay, the Swedish pair taking the deciding set 11-8.
Pathway athlete Theo Bishop teamed up with Roberto Martinelli from Italy and they made a great start in their first match, taking the first set against Jonas Hansson and Sam Gustafsson before the Swedish pair came back to win 3-1. They won 3-0 against Mathew Weber and Samuel Altshuler from USA but did not progress after a 3-0 loss to Henrik Meyer from Germany and Ben Despineux from Belgium.