Club members and coaches turned out in considerable numbers for the National Championships on the weekend as the premier event in Welsh table tennis made National Champions of club players in the Mens, Mens Doubles, Mixed Doubles, Standing Disabled, Under 13 Girls and both Cadet Boys and Girls categories.
With the annual event this year hosted in Cardiff, fourteen club members along with four of the club’s coaches were in competition as friends, parents and fellow club members watched on from a specially erected viewing area for spectators. The city’s table tennis fans were spoilt over the weekend as hundreds of high quality matches were played out at the Sport Wales National Centre, with some of the country’s top players excelling in multiple categories and seeming to be in almost constant action across the busy hall.
The largest contingent of club players could be seen in the Mens Singles competition, and after the group stages were completed on Saturday seven of the nine entrants from the club were still standing in the knockout stages. In the groups club coach Nathan Thomas beat last year’s Junior Champion in straight sets on his way to topping Group 6. His fellow coaches Lloyd Gregory, Patrick Thomas and Dan O’Connell all likewise topped their groups; Lloyd after seeing off last year’s Cadet Champion Jac Jenkins. Paul Karabardak, Ryan Crowley and Lawrence John also progressed as runners-up in their respective groups.
Going out after the group stage was Bueno Guillermo, after competing well in his first National Championships, along with veteran Simon Packer and junior Pouyan Javanmard who had found himself in a ‘Group of Death’ including top seed Dan O’Connell and Wales’ number 2 Junior Chris Griffiths.
Club member and decorated Team GB Para player Paul Karabardak was soon to join them in exiting the competition after a second round defeat to Cardiff City coach Lloyd Gregory. Another Para player with international pedigree was to go out at the same stage to another Cardiff coach as Lawrence John slumped to defeat against Patrick Thomas. Club member Ryan Crowley met Mike Marsden in the last 16 and went down to a straight sets defeat against the experienced player who represents Ormesby in the British League.
The Ormesby man’s victory over Ryan was to set up a five set thriller in the Quarter Finals between Mike Marsden and Patrick Thomas; a fixture which could be repeated in the British League come September as Patrick joins Mike in the sport’s Premier Division following the recent promotion of Cardiff City I. In the first match of the day to be played on the show courts, Patrick Thomas took the fifth 11-8 to secure an all Cardiff Coach Semi-Final against Welsh number 1 Dan O’Connell, who had just beaten Jac Jenkins on the next table. Preventing a clear sweep of club coaches in the Semis were Wales’ number two and three respectively; Ryan Oyler and Callum Evans. Former British under 18s champion Ryan knocked out Lloyd Gregory, while Callum Evans proved just too strong for Nathan Thomas as both Cardiff City players suffered 3-1 defeats to end their Singles campaigns.
If Patrick’s last match was a nail-biter, his battle with Dan O’Connell was to prove one of the most captivating of the day. Each player let match points slip in a nerve-shredding fifth set which Dan was eventually to take 13/11, ending Patrick’s trophy hopes.
“If you had of asked me before Sunday how I’d feel about getting to the Semi-Finals, I’d have said I’d be over the moon”, said Patrick Thomas after the match. “But now, when I’ve come so close to beating the number 1 seed, I have to admit that I am a little disappointed.”
After Callum Evans beat Ryan Oyler in the other Singles semi, an intriguing Final was set up between twenty-two year old former German League professional Dan O’Connell and teenager Callum Evans, enjoying his best ever National Championships after a year training at the prestigious Grantham table tennis academy. In the ‘best of eight sets’ Final Dan raced to an early 3-0 lead, but a turn of the tide looked possible as Callum snatched two sets back and looked to be growing in confidence. Dan’s experience won the day however as the Cardiff coach refused to be spooked by the threat of a comeback and added another set to win the tie 4-2. Dan O’Connell becomes National Mens Champion for the first time in the career of the high flying player from Ebbw Vale.
Dan’s title charge was not over though, with two doubles events still to come. Partnered with his Singles Semi-Final rival Patrick Thomas, Dan found himself top seed once again in the Mens Doubles, allowing Dan and Patrick to skip a preliminary round in the straight knock-out event. Fellow club coaches Nathan Thomas and Lloyd Gregory were afforded no such privileges though as they found themselves in a tough opening match up with club member Lawrence John and Swansea’s Marc Castro. The coaches initially looked to be in trouble as Lawrence and Marc came close to a straight set victory before Nathan and Lloyd snatched the third set 14-12 and won two more on the bounce.
“That was a massive scare”, admitted Lloyd Gregory later. “We were 2-0 down with match points against us in the third. I played a huge round the net, and then we got a bit of confidence back after that.”
The hard fought victory for Nathan and Lloyd meant that all four Cardiff coaches would be in competitive action around one table as the Nathan/Lloyd pairing went up against the Dan/Patrick one in the Semi-Final. In the club coach derby four closely fought sets produced a 3-1 win for Patrick and Dan, who would meet Conor Edwards and Chris Griffiths in the final. Justifying their top seeding Patrick and Dan were in ruthless form at the final hurdle as they overcame their opponents 3-0 to carry away the Mens Doubles title.
With his Doubles trophy in the bag, Patrick later highlighted the Semi Final against Nathan and Lloyd as “the most nerve-wracking match we had. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been but it was. Possibly it’s because we’re all good friends, but also we know just how dangerous they can be.
Recalling the clash of Cardiff coaches Lloyd Gregory seems to have taken a more objective approach to the fixture. “It was pretty standard really. We’ve all played each other in competitions before, so it’s just another game. After you step into the court it’s not too friendly anyway. It’s just business; you try and win.”
Dan O’Connell was to add one further trophy to his prolific campaign in the Nationals as he re-joined his doubles partner from the World Championships earlier this year to win the National Mixed Doubles with Charlotte Carey. As top seeds again Dan’s team avoided the preliminary round to meet Cardiff City British League Junior Jamie-Lee Harley partnered with top Team Wales Cadet Joseph Roberts. Jamie-Lee and Joseph had reached their Quarter Final against Dan and Charlotte after overcoming Louie Evans and Beth Richards in the previous round. The doubles team who reached the final thirty-two at the World Championships in China would prove too strong though for their young opponents and Dan and Charlotte progressed into the semis with a 3-0 win. A 3-1 victory against Reece Lo and Beth Roberts followed, winning the experienced pair a final challenge against the highly-rated Thomas siblings.
Club coach Patrick Thomas and his sister Chloe had booked their place in the Final after knocking out Marc Castro and Kate Roberts before scoring another victory over Callum Evans and Nicole Hall in the semis. The Mixed Doubles finalists were all well known to each other with Dan having partnered Patrick in the Mens Doubles and Charlotte having similarly partnered Chloe to victory in the Womens Doubles. The intriguing Mixed Doubles clash ended in a straight sets victory for Charlotte and Dan as the Mens Singles Champion claimed his third trophy of the day.
Dan later said of his Super Sunday “when you’re number 1 seed then the pressure’s on. Everyone is looking to you expecting you to win and I was expecting myself to win to be honest but it’s always easier said than done. I’m just happy and relieved to have come through it.”
“It’s been one of the best moments of my career so far. Everyone who plays in Wales and gets to a certain level wants to win a National Championship. To be able to say I’m one of the few people who’ve actually done it is an amazing feeling.”
Joining his fellow club coaches among the senior trophy winners was Nathan Thomas, who completed a Grand Slam in the round robin Standing Disabled competition. Included in the National Championship program for only the second time, entry into the category was this year dominated by club players with three quarters of Para players competing on the weekend having trained regularly at Cardiff City. On Sunday Nathan’s strongest challenge in the category came from Lawrence John who took his former coach to five sets before Nathan eventually edged it.
“There was more pressure on me in the Standing Disabled category because I’d won it the year before”, recounted Nathan after the weekend. “Situations and players change though and you never know what’s going to happen a year down the line. I don’t think I played great in that category to be honest. Going straight away from the Singles matches into another competition wasn’t ideal for me, but I got through it and it’s really nice to retain the title.”
The club’s youngest players were to be among the busiest on the weekend. Since the limited years of several of the club’s elite players permitted them to enter the greatest number of categories, many hopefuls jumped at the chance to gain as much high level experience as possible.
Half of the Cadet Girls category for players under the age of fifteen was made up of club members with Lara Whitton, Jamie-Lee Harley, Anna Hursey and Lydia John all in action. Progressing into the Semi-Finals as winners of their respective qualification groups, Anna Hursey met Beth Richards while Lydia John faced off against Lauren Stacey. Both semis were closely fought with a fifth set required to separate the top four under 15s. After losing the decider 11-8, eight year old Anna Hursey slipped out of the Cadet event, now turning her focus to one of the four other events she was participating in. On the next court Lydia John won her own deciding set 11-3 to secure a place in the Final. Facing Maesteg’s highly rated Beth Richards in the Final, Lydia narrowly lost her first set 11-9. Showing a champion’s mentality though, Lydia responded well to take the following three sets and retain her Cadet Girls National Title with a 3-1 victory overall.
Another strong entry of club members into a hotly contested Cadet Boys category further demonstrated the promise of the club’s top young players. Sid Mohanty and Theo Vine acquitted themselves well before going out in the Cadets group stage. As did Dan Jones, moving on to bigger competitions after advancing beyond the club’s monthly Dragon Tournament last month.
Cade Short and Benedict Watson marched on from the Cadet group stages to meet tough second round opposition in the form of two more graduates of the Dragon Tournament; Louie Evans and Jacob Young. Cade beat Jacob in straight sets to reach the semis, but Louie took Benedict to the fifth before the Cardiff player eventually won the final set 11-3. Benedict’s run was to be ended in the next round though by the Welsh number 1 in his age group as Josh Stacey blocked Benedict’s path to the final. Across the hall Cade Short came through his Semi-Final clash with Joe Roberts to set up a fascinating Final between Wales top ranking Cadet and the rapidly improving Cade. After winning the first two sets by only two points, Cade opened up some breathing space to win the third 11-5 and complete a 3-0 victory to conclude Cade’s journey to a Cadet Boys National Championship.
Cardiff City’s Lloyd Gregory coached Cade’s through his famous win over Josh Stacey and later expressed his delight with the player who undergoes regular 1-on-1 training with Lloyd at the club. “He’s maturing really well. Cade’s style is getting more aggressive. Previously he’s been quite comfortable at the back of the court but now he’s actually coming out and attacking you. I think that’s something people should be scared about. I can see him beating me, Patrick and even Dan eventually. It’s a little way off yet- a few years maybe- but if he keep on improving like he is, it’s going to happen.”
In the Girls Under 13s category the club’s youngest participant in the National Championships was showing no signs of weariness after competing in five separate events. Eight year old Anna Hursey achieved an incredible Grand Slam in the round robin competition, carrying away her first National Title after showing enough promise across several categories to suggest plenty more titles will follow. Only a year or so older than Anna, club member Lara Whitton also produced a strong showing in the competition’s youngest age group for girls. Although key defeats to Lauren Stacey and to Junior British League team mate Anna Hursey kept Lara off the top spot, she achieved a third place finish overall.
Anna’s triumph in the Under 13 Girls completed the incredible seven trophy haul for club players and coaches. Other club members came close though with several junior and senior players reaching the latter stages of their categories.
In the Under 13 Boys reigning Dragon Champion Dan Jones attained a crucial win against Abishek Bathula to progress out of the group stage. Dan was to be knocked out at the Quarter Final stage however by eventual champion Joseph Roberts.
Two club members met in the last sixteen of the Junior Boys category as Pouyan Javanmard took on Lawrence John following both players’ progression from their respective groups as runners up. Lawrence won that match 3-1, only to be knocked out by Ryan Oyler in the Quarter Finals.
On a busy weekend for Lawrence, the sixteen year old club member and pupil of Grantham table tennis academy also reached the last eight of the Under 21 Mens category. Once again Lawrence met Ryan Oyler and suffered his second 3-1 defeat to the same player. Cade Short meanwhile matched Lawrence’s achievement in the Under 21s, but was stopped before the semis by a straight set defeat to Callum Evans.
In the Junior Girls event, Under 13s Champ Anna Hursey made it out of the group stage despite coming up against players anything up to ten years her senior. Anna met the Welsh Junior number three in the Quarter Finals and took Soffi Jenkins to the fifth before narrowly losing the decider 15-13.
Junior British League team-mates Pouyan Javanmard and Benedict Watson linked up in the Junior Doubles to reach the Quarter-Finals then were knocked out by Ryan Oyler and Callum Evans. Partnered again with Marc Castro, Lawrence John lasted one match longer than his fellow club members before also running into Ryan and Callum and exiting the competition at the Semi-Final stage.
It wasn’t just the club juniors in contention as the Championships reached its final stages though. Simon Packer made it successfully out of his Over 50s group. The club member, who also competed in the Veterans and Mens Singles category, was to be beaten 3-0 in the Quarter Finals of the Over 50s by Swansea player Dennis Bromage.
Reflecting later on what has been the most successful National Championships campaign ever for Cardiff City members, Coach and Club Director Nathan Thomas said that “having so many successful players there has been great for the club. It shows off how the club is coming along and what we’re trying to do here.”
“It’s not just about the results though. It’s about getting more and more players competing at this level every year. It’s nice to win, of course, and producing successful players is a large part of what the club’s about. What’s really pleasing for me though is that everyone from the club gave a really good account of themselves all weekend; the juniors behaved themselves, their attitudes were good in victory or defeat. That’s even more important really.”
Cardiff City Table Tennis Club is Wales’ only full time table tennis centre. The club’s facilities are open to the public six days a week for both casual play and high quality coaching. There are sessions suitable for every age and level of ability, and the club are always on the look out for new players.