World champion Will Bayley and European champion Rob Davies head a 16-strong GB squad that will compete in the IPTT Slovenia Open next week (May 4-7). With nearly all the world’s top players set to take part including a strong Chinese team the tournament will provide a valuable opportunity for the GB players to test themselves against the competition ahead of the Paralympic Games in Rio in September.
Bayley, 28, silver medallist in London 2012, is currently world ranked number one in men’s class 7 but is looking to put a below-par performance in February’s Italian Open behind him.
“I can’t wait to play the best players in the world in my class,” said Bayley. “For us all to be at a competition is really exciting and I see it as a great opportunity for me. Training has been great since Italy; I have improved on things and also played many (able bodied) league matches and been successful which has given me great confidence coming in to these massive competitions. I have given it everything in the training hall since Italy - there is no stone left unturned. I’m totally ready to play in Slovenia and can’t wait to get started.”
“It should be a great tournament,” said the Welshman. “Obviously I want to do well and keep a good seeding for Rio but as long as I perform in September that’s all that really counts. I’m pretty happy to be honest, we’ve had brilliant preparation and it’s more a case of keeping my body together at the moment.”
Eleven of the 12 GB athletes selected for Rio will compete in Slovenia including London 2012 bronze medallist Paul Davies, who will be returning to competition after nearly two years out through injury.
“Getting back to full fitness has been a challenge,” admits Davies, “but I have missed competing so much as I love being under pressure and the atmosphere of the competition hall. Rio is obviously my main focus this year; my progress is on target so Slovenia will be a good chance to see where I am against the best in the world.”
Also competing in Slovenia will be London 2012 medalists Jane Cambell, Sara Head, Aaron McKibbin and Ross Wilson.
“It’s great going into a really strong competition knowing that we will be able to assess where we are against our strongest competitors,” said Campbell. “My training has really built up since Italy and I’m feeling well prepared. The tournaments coming up are a great opportunity to assess improvements and to fine tune areas to work on in the final few months of preparation for Rio.
“I’m feeling really happy with my game at the moment and am looking forward to the challenge of competing.”
“Training has been going well,” said Head. “We have been building on what we learnt in Italy. Slovenia and Slovakia the following week will be very important preparation for Rio. I’m really pleased that I’ve been able to have a constant level of training after two years of broken training due to surgery and illness. I feel I’m playing at a good level at this point in our preparation and I’m really pleased with areas we have worked on so hope to see the improvement in Slovenia and Slovakia when it’s put into match play.”
McKibbin and Wilson won a team bronze in London with Bayley and are also looking forward to testing themselves against the world’s best in Slovenia.
“It looks as if it is going to be even stronger then Rio potentially as the world’s top 20 will be there so it’s really exciting to be there and see what we can do,” said 24 year old McKibbin. “It’s definitely a stepping stone towards Rio and it will be a fantastic test to see where we are compared to our competition.”
“I am really looking forward to playing the Chinese players as it will be the first time I have played against any of them for a long time,” said Wilson, 20, who has had to contend with a series of injuries since London . “I’m happy with where my game is at the moment; I have put a lot of work in to the basics of my game and I know I will improve a lot in the lead up to Rio.”
Fellow Paralympians Kim Daybell, Paul Karabardak and David Wetherill will all be looking to lay down a marker ahead of Rio.
“Training since Italy has been great,” said the 23 year old. “I looked at some things I needed to improve and have made changes. I think my game is coming together nicely. These tournaments are vital for Rio as we can improve our ranking and lay some markers down to the rest of the world.”
“Slovenia is always a strong competition,” said the 30 year old, “so it will be a good test for me to see where I am at the moment and see what I need to work on before the Paralympics. I am happy with this year so far as I have been training well and my level has been good. I had a good competition in Italy but I feel I can play a bit better, which hopefully I can do in Slovenia and ultimately in Rio.”
“Rio is still a few months away but it’s a crucial time in the run up to the Games,” said Wetherill, “and may have a direct impact on how things go although I don’t want to be playing my best just yet - it’s all about peaking for Rio.
“I wasn’t playing that well at the start of this year and was disappointed in myself to lose in the final of the Malmo Open and the semi-finals of the Italian Open back in February. But things have picked up a bit since then and hopefully I can make amends out in Slovenia, and in Slovakia the following week.”
Jack Hunter-Spivey will compete in his first Paralympic Games in Rio and is looking to build on some good wins in the Italian Open in February, including a victory over the Paralympic champion Tommy Urhaug.
“My wins in Italy have filled me with confidence,” said the 20 year old. “I have proved I can really compete against the world’s best players and I also feel I have a lot more to improve on. My motivation has always been very high but this just shows hard work does pay off.”
“I’m excited to play the Slovenia Open,” said the 21 year old London South Bank University student, “as it is one of the strongest international tournaments on the circuit. I am looking forward to showing the world my ability and just go out and play my best table tennis.”
The squad for Slovenia is completed by Megan Shackleton, Billy Shilton, Felicity Pickard and Martin Perry.
“I’m really looking forward to Slovenia,” said Shackleton, “as it’ll be a chance to play against some of 2016’s Paralympians and I’m hoping I can compete well and show what I’ve been working really hard on in training. I’m finding new confidence in things that I felt were much weaker at the beginning of the year - which is always exciting going into a tournament.”
Shilton, 17, narrowly missed out on direct qualification for the Games after he was reclassified as a class 8 in October last year, although as first alternate for men’s class 8 he also still has a chance of competing in Rio.
“I’m really looking forward to Slovenia,” he said, “as all the top players will be there and it will be like a mini Paralympics. It will be a great learning curve for me as well as I’m going to be surrounded by all the top players. I’m really excited. Training has really picked up in intensity in the last few weeks. I am feeling much better physically and technically than before the Italian Open (in February) and the majority of sessions now are very match specific.”
Pickard took time away from competition in 2014 to focus on her training rather than trying to qualify for Rio and has shown the benefit of that since returning to international competition in October last year.
“I am really looking forward to competing again against the world class players,” said the 21 year old. “It will be another great experience for me. Training has been going really well as I feel I learnt a lot in Italy and since then I have really focused on the improvements I needed to make. I have been pushing the top players and I would love to convert these close loses into wins but as long as I am constantly learning and enjoying it I know I will play my best table tennis and the wins will come eventually.”
“I am really looking forward to the Slovenia Open,” said 21 year old Perry. “It is quite possibly the strongest tournament I have entered to date and I am going to get a chance to play some of the best players in the world and really try and show the improvement I’ve made.”
GB Performance Director Gorazd Vecko said: “The Slovenia Open is always one of the most competitive tournaments of the season and this year it will be stronger than ever. We are preparing the players to peak in September so the results in Slovenia, and in Slovakia the following week, will not necessarily have a bearing on what happens in Rio but it will give us an idea of the progress we are making and what we need to work on over the next four months.”
The full GB squad for Slovenia is:
Will Bayley - men’s class 7 (Tunbridge Wells/Sheffield)
Jane Campbell - women’s class 3 (London)
Paul Davies - men’s class 1 (North Cornelly)
Rob Davies - men’s class 1 (Brecon)
Kim Daybell - men’s class 10 (Sheffield/Leeds)
Ashley Facey Thompson - men’s class 9 (London)
Sara Head - women’s class 3 (Beddau)
Jack Hunter-Spivey - men’s class 5 (Liverpool/Sheffield)
Paul Karabardak - men’s class 6 (Swansea)
Aaron McKibbin - men’s class 8 (London/Sheffield)
Martin Perry - men’s class 6 (Paisley/Sheffield)
Felicity Pickard - women’s class 6 (Burnley)
Megan Shackleton - women’s class 4 (Todmorden)
Billy Shilton - men’s class 8 (Stonehouse/Sheffield)
David Wetherill - men’s class 6 (Torpoint)
Ross Wilson - men’s class 8 (Minster/Sheffield)