by Simon Daish
No matter which way one views the success, there’s no denying that Pitch’s outing in Doha was nothing short of sensational and somewhat inspirational to other pros looking to take the challenge to the sport’s elite players.
Against all odds
Heading to the Qatari capital as the no.15 seed in the men’s singles draw, Pitch defied all the odds to make it all the way to the final where he was eventually beaten by China’s Fan Zhendong (11-9, 11-7, 8-11, 11-4, 6-11, 11-7). A man with high expectations and great confidence in his abilities, but even Pitch admitted that he himself was pleasantly surprised with his run in Doha.
“I probably didn’t anticipate getting to the final, it’s a bit of a surprise. But I go into any event knowing I’m capable of going into the later rounds. It’s about finding form and doing it at the right time and I’d had a couple of good weeks recently. The Hungarian Open was the start of me feeling like I was playing well, and then I won the Nationals – then I jumped straight on a plane to Doha! It probably helped that I was straight into the main draw and when I got going, I felt good. I was on my game for the whole tournament.” Liam Pitchford
Opening his campaign with victory over world men’s doubles champion Alvaro Robles, Pitch went on to account for 1997 World Championships finalist and Belarusian table tennis legend Vladimir Samsonov and 2002 World Tour Grand Finals champion Chuang Chih-Yuan to reach the last four. However, it was his meeting with Xu Xin that really caught the eye.
The two had only met twice before in head-to-head action with the master of the penhold grip Xu coming out on top 4-0 on both occasions. It’s fair to say the odds were in the Chinese superstar’s favour, but the showman was about to receive a big shock!
Simply breathtaking at times, Pitch produced one of the best performances of his career to date to stun fans with an incredible 4-2 win over Xu (3-11, 11-7, 11-9, 6-11, 15-13, 11-9). A mightily impressive result and it could prove to be a very important one for the Englishman, whose self-belief has risen so high that he himself thinks he might just have put somewhat of a target on his back as a potential threat to China’s finest.
“I’ve always felt Xu Xin was the most tricky of the Chinese players for my style and I was really nervous in the first set and didn’t put him under pressure. But when I settled down, and Gav [England coach Gavin Evans] told me to enjoy it and relax, I started getting into the game. I’ve had trouble with the serve and receive against him before, but I felt I was dominating that and that gave me confidence for the rest of the match. It’s obviously given me a lot of confidence going forward. Against the Chinese in the past, I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity of playing how I can, but now I am. I think they’re worried about me and will work on how to beat me, so next time I play them it will be more difficult. But I’m up for that challenge.” Liam Pitchford
A man for the big occasion
Pitch has always had the potential to pose problems for the world’s best on the big stage, showing it from an early point in his career when he beat Vladimir Samsonov at the 2011 European Championships aged 18. Over the past couple of years in particular Pitch has displayed great improvement in his game, achieving victory over the likes of Timo Boll, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Tomokazu Harimoto and Ma Long since 2018!
In the first three months of this year alone Pitch has been a top eight finisher at the CCB 2020 Europe Top 16 Cup, crowned English national champion for a sixth time, a semi-finalist at the 2020 ITTF World Tour Hungarian Open and runner-up at the 2020 ITTF World Tour Platinum Qatar Open.
So, what’s behind Pitch’s rise in form in 2020? The English star highlighted a tactical meeting with England coach Gavin Evans as an important turning point in his run of form.
“Me and Gav sat down towards the end of last year and identified a few things in my game that I needed to work on. We started working on that but it takes time for it to click – I knew that and trusted the process. At the Europe Top 16 I didn’t feel the results went how I wanted, but I felt I was on the way to playing well. We did a bit of work before Hungary and then it started to feel really good and everything clicked together.” Liam Pitchford
Partners in crime
Pitch’s individual display at the Qatar Open is very much deserving of the limelight, but the Englishman’s journey wasn’t just limited to his fine outing in the men’s singles competition!
Competing in the men’s doubles event alongside fellow countryman and good friend Paul Drinkhall, Pitch was part of another success story in Doha as he and Drinkhall returned home with a silver medal to add to their collection. A personal best finish, what is it that makes the pair click?
“I think we just complement each other well, our games fit each other. I’m more the one that sets up the point and Paul finishes it. Paul’s really good in the short game and if you can keep it tight, you’re at an advantage. I’m good from the backhand side and Paul’s good from the forehand side and that works really well. We believe in each other and trust each other and that’s one of the main things – if you trust in what you are doing and how you want to play, that confidence comes. We haven’t played together that often in recent times, but you can see that when we come back together, we’re capable of beating the best players in the world!” Liam Pitchford
Coping against COVID-19
As you’ll all be aware by now the global outbreak of COVID-19 has led to the suspension of all international table tennis action provisionally until the end of April. The ITTF’s decision to carry out the suspension comes following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic and is in place to prioritise the health and safety of athletes, coaches, officials and fans alike.
It is an immensely difficult time for all, including everyone’s favourite table tennis stars who are also caught up in these unpredictable times, taking extra precautions to stay fit and safe.
So far Pitch hasn’t seen his training regime take a big hit following the outbreak but is aware of the gravitas surrounding the situation. Applauded for his heartfelt story surrounding personal problems with mental health, Pitch is a firm believer in putting health above all else.
“It’s tricky, but everyone’s in the same situation and there’s nothing that can be done about it. I’d planned to have a two-week camp based more on physical work anyway, so I’m trying to do that and I’ve been able to so far. It’s probably likely that everywhere is going to shut down, and if it comes to that I’ll have to find a solution to get my body in better shape if we can’t do anything on the table. You’ve got to put your health first, and it’s not just physical health but mental as well – trying to keep on top of that is key.” Liam Pitchford
These times of uncertainty may leave a cloud over when we can expect to see Pitch in action again but just like the rest of the world’s top stars the 26-year-old from Chesterfield is hard at work making sure he’s at his optimum when he returns to the table.
So what’s next for Liam Pitchford? Impressing fans across the world with his form in recent weeks, but you can bet he won’t be content with that alone! Similar performances in his next appearances will be most welcomed Pitch, however, now the question is how far can he go?
“It’s quite lucky we played Qatar as obviously tournaments have been cancelled now. It’s just a case of taking it day by day at the moment to see what’s going to happen. But the aim is what it’s always been and that’s trying to be more consistent and play like I did in Qatar and be at that level week in, week out. I know I can be – it’s about keeping my head down and doing the work I’ve been doing. That’s the key to beating the Chinese. They are the best in the world for a reason and I want to do that as well, to be the best that I can be in every tournament and training session.” Liam Pitchford
The ITTF would like to place on record its thanks to Liam Pitchford and Table Tennis England for taking the time to arrange the interview.