by Simon Daish
Paul Drinkhall, Liam Pitchford and Sam Walker took part in the 2016 Olympic Games for Great Britain; all three players had enjoyed a successful campaign at the 2016 World Team Championships earlier in the year, although they were representing England rather than Britain at the time.
World Championship Progress
England had been placed in a difficult group featuring Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark and Malaysia but to the amazement of their opponents the three British men scraped through in third spot. Sweden (1-3) and France (0-3) beat England in the opening two matches, however, the English team won the next three ties in a row including a 3-1 victory over Germany to advance from the group on games difference.
Next up for England was a 3-2 win against Poland, but their most notable result came in the match with France in the quarter-finals. The French team were sitting 1-2 up in a best of five tie, but Pitchford brought England level by beating Simon Gauzy in four ends. Just one more win was required for the match and the French side looked the more likely team to progress as Emmanuel Lebesson moved 1-2 in front, but Drinkhall dug in deep to take two consecutive games and put England into the semi-finals.
Japan entered the last four match against England as strong favourites, but they were given a scare by the underdogs. Jun Mizutani gave the Japanese team the lead with a straight games win over Paul Drinkhall, but it was anything but comfortable for Japan after that as Liam Pitchford lost out 2-3 to Maharu Yoshimura. Sam Walker contributed one of the performances of his career when he put England back into the match with a victory against Yuya Oshima (3-1); however, it was not to be for the European side as Mizutani came from 2-0 down to see off Pitchford 2-3. So a semi-finals exit but a bronze medal in the bag capped off a brilliant tournament for the England lineup.
Scotland were the only other country from Great Britain to participate in the men’s category at the World Championships, finishing 57th overall.
Team GB Impress at Rio 2016
Great Britain’s first involvement at the 2016 Olympic Games was in round one of the Men’s Singles competition where Paul Drinkhall (38th seed) eliminated Aleksandar Karakasevic (Serbia) in five ends. Drinkhall then stunned Singapore’s Gao Ning (26th) 4-3, with Liam Pitchford (31st) kicking off his crusade with a 4-1 win over Zokhid Kenjaev of Uzbekistan.
Jeoung Youngsik (seeded 9th) stopped Pitchford in his tracks in round three (1-4), but Drinkhall’s dreams of a medal were still alive after the Brit defeated Croatia’s Andrej Gacina (15th) in the sixth game. Drinkhall’s confidence levels were sky high as he prepared for the last 16, but the 7th seed Vladimir Samsonov (Belarus) soon brought him back down to earth, beating Drinkhall 2-4 before going on to finish in fourth position.
The Men’s Team event draw saw happy memories flood back in for the British boys, as a rematch of their World Championships victory against France was on the cards. Yet more drama was produced by both teams in Rio with the tie going the full seven match distance.
Simon Gauzy gave the French the opening match, beating Pitchford (2-3), but Drinkhall came from 1-2 back to win 3-2 against Emmanuel Lebesson, in a similar fashion to their encounter at the Worlds. France then regained the lead by winning the doubles, only for Pitchford to win three games in a row from 0-2 behind to overcome Tristan Flore to set up a decider. With Gauzy and Walker going to the final end the Frenchman had almost put his country through holding a 7-10 advantage, however, Walker saved three match points to beat Gauzy 12-10 to keep Britain in the Games.
China awaited Great Britain in the last eight and with ten places separating the two teams on the seedings list, it was always going to be a tough ask for the British squad. But they gave a very good account of themselves despite the eventual 0-3 defeat to the Chinese.
Pitchford took on Ma Long in the opener and actually went 1-0 up, but the newly crowned Men’s Singles champion fought back in style to win 1-3. Then Drinkhall surprised the opposition by securing the opening game in his tie with Xu Xin, yet just like Pitchford did in the previous encounter, the British player fell away with Xu taking the match. Great Britain’s hero from the round of 16 Sam Walker was then called into action to partner Paul Drinkhall in the doubles, but even though the duo managed to scrape a game it was China’s Zhang Jike and Xu Xin who prevailed to end Great Britain’s wonderful journey at Rio 2016.
Optimism For Great Britain Moving Forward
Following their exit to China, the British players reflected on how they had performed over the course of the Olympic Games: “I think we surprised them (China),” said Liam Pitchford, “I had a plan to follow, I won the first game against Ma Long and then I had 9-7 in the third and fourth but I couldn’t make it count; he (Ma) responded, that’s why he is Olympic and World champion.”
Drinkhall believes that England’s promotion to the Men’s Championship Division of the World Championships achieved back in 2014 has played a crucial part in the development of the players, “I think since Japan 2014 (World Championships) we are all now much more consistent as individuals; we wanted to win, we gave our best, it’s been a great tournament.”
“I try to play just the same wherever I play but for sure I really enjoy playing in the really big tournaments, the Olympic Games and the World Championships; here there is so much hype and of course we have had a great deal of preparation. It’s been great” – Sam Walker.
Positives drawn from the British players, but it’s perhaps the kind words given by their Chinese counterparts that carry the most encouragement. Xu Xin described Great Britain as “one of the top teams in Europe” while Head Coach of China Liu Guoliang, said that his team had been surprised by the island nation’s improvement, “The three members of the Great Britain team have been playing well this year, including the World Team Championships in Kuala Lumpur, and here at the Olympic Games.” He added, “they have really surprised many with their performance.”
London 2012 may hold a special place in the hearts of many British athletes, but for the Men’s Table Tennis team it was Rio 2016 where the world began to take note.