Four years after taking silver in London 2012 Will Bayley took gold in Rio today, beating the Brazilian Israel Stroh 3-1 in the final of the men’s class 7 singles. But there was heartache for Sue Gilroy as she narrowly missed out on taking the bronze medal in the women’s class 4 singles, losing 3-2 to Nada Matic from Serbia.
Bayley had started his Paralympic competition by losing 3-1 to Stroh in his first group match but showed his character and determination in bouncing back from that defeat to beat China’s Keli Liao 3-0 and secure top spot in the group. Victories over the Egyptian Sayed Youssef in the quarter-finals and Jordi Morales from Spain in the semi-finals took him through to his sixth consecutive major final – a superb achievement in itself.
A tense opening set was clinched by Bayley 11-9 but Stroh came back to take the second 11-5 to the delight of the home crowd. The third was another nervy affair with Stroh taking an early lead at 2-4 before Bayley pulled it back to 4-4 and then established a lead at 7-5. Back came Stroh to take the advantage at 9-7 but Bayley levelled again at 9-9 and then took the next two points to take the set and a 2-1 lead in the match.
That proved to be the turning point as Bayley grew in belief while Stroh’s confidence slowly ebbed away. He established a clear lead in the fourth and with the score at 10-4 he only needed one of his six match points to take the gold before leaping on to the table in celebration – an action that earned him a yellow card from the umpire.
“The third set was a massive win,” he admitted afterwards, “as I was down a bit early on. I saw his body language after that and I thought he looked like me four years ago in London when Jochen (Wollmert) was tearing me to pieces and I thought ‘I need to capitalise’. I don’t think he believed he could win after that and I did. Table tennis at this level is just about belief. If you believe you can do it you’ve got a chance and if you don’t it is game over.
“I think I got a massive sense of calmness after that third set. I flew in the fourth and I really got on top of him and he started missing a few important balls as well. It was a tough match. It was my sixth major final and that helped me a lot today. I stayed calm even though there was a lot going on and I played the big points well.”
Bayley praised his Brazilian opponent, who had defeated three of the World’s top five players to reach his first major final.
“I was trying to block on my backhand but he was playing it down the line really well and I was thinking how to counteract that, but I knew he was going to do it so I was prepared for that. His forehand top spin is a very good shot and very hard to control and he goes for it. He’s got ‘cohones’. It was his first major final so he has done brilliantly and I’ve got big respect for him.”
Bayley also paid an emotional tribute to close family friend Linda Slade, who supported him throughout his career before losing her life to cancer last year.
“I miss Linda very much,” he said. “She was a real supporter of me and I hope I’ve done it for her. That win was for her.”
After a day off tomorrow Bayley will be back in the men’s class 6-8 team event with Aaron McKibbin and Ross Wilson and is already targeting another medal.
“I want to win the gold medal in team and I really believe that we can do it. We have to believe in ourselves and go for it.”
Gilroy was trying to win her first Paralympic medal at her fifth Games and she came agonisingly close. Having taken the first set 14-12 she won the second 11-8 to lead 2-0 but Matic slowly started to force her way back into the game and took the next two sets 8 and 6. Although Gilroy kept fighting it was the Serbian who took control of the fifth and final set to take it 11-6 and the bronze medal.
Gilroy was understandably bitterly disappointed having come so close to winning the one major medal that has eluded her in her illustrious career.
“I’m absolutely gutted,” she said. “I followed the game plan that we had going in but she improved as the games went on and she played better on the day. Fourth is the worst position to be in, particularly when you have been 2-0 up. I’m proud of what I’ve done but I’m gutted for my family and coaches who have helped me so much that I just couldn’t get that medal.”