County Antrim Open Report

Picture: Daryl Strong

Forty table tennis enthusiasts from all over Ulster travelled to the Ballymena Academy gymnasiums to participate in the 2013 County Antrim Open. The quality entry included no less than eight of Ulster’s top sixteen players headed by Strongtower’s Mark McAllister, Ballyclare’s Gary Crawford, Ballymena Open champion Philip Wallace, top Ulster veteran Pawel Sulkowski, attempting to regain the title he last won in 2011, and Daryl Strong, the 2012 Co Antrim champion, determined to retain his title.

To qualify for the Open event the players had to finish in the top two of a group of five players. Anyone in third place qualified for the Class 2 event, those fourth in their group qualified for the Class 3 event and the fifth placed players battled out for the Class 4 event. There was a total of eight seeds each heading one of the eight groups.

In the qualifying group stages the top seed Mark McAllister qualified from a very competitive Group 1 unscathed with close victories over Zambia’s Aaron Muguti, Strongtower’s Norman McBride and Jonny Wilson and Ballyclare’s Andrew Davies. Davies snatched second place by stint of a net cord to continue in the Open competition.

Second seed Ballyclare’s Gary Crawford was top of Group 2 defeating  the new-look Richard Black, Ballymoney veteran Gary McClelland, Newtownabbey lad Colin Clements and teenage sensation and new kid on the local Strongtower scene Vladislav Chucklev. Richard Black qualified for the Open by finishing second in the group.

In Group 3 Larne’s Phil Jamison, fresh from a skiing trip in Poland, romped into the Open with some excellent attacking table tennis defeating Roy Coard, Stevie Turkington, Paul McGuiggan and Peter McCrum, Portadown’s Stevie Turkington accompanied Jamison into the Open thanks to an excellent victory over the war horse that is Roy Coard.

Group 4 had the Ballymena champion Belfast’s Philip Wallace in fine form finishing top of the group ahead of ace veteran Barry Dickson, Banbridge’s Arnold Morgan,  Ballymena veteran Jimmy O’Hara and hot local prospect Jonny Moore. Dickson, playing his best table tennis of the year (well it is only the second week in January), also made it into the Open.

Group 5 saw the excellent Pawel Sulkowski stroll into the Open with straight set wins over Portadown’s Randolph Loney, Belfast stalwart Ted Mahaffey, Carnmoney’s attacking phenomenon Peter Martin, and Ballymena’s James Wharton. Randolph Loney showed that there was still a place in the top echelons of table tennis for a defender by taking second spot.

Group 6 had the first minor upset as Daryl Strong – unseeded due to a lack of tournament play over the past twelve months – breezed into the Open without dropping a set and in so doing defeated sixth seed Richard Davies who clinched second spot with wins over Coleraine’s new signing Robin Agnew, Knockagh’s wizard of the table Stephen Clarke and Donegal’s hot teenage prospect and the youngest participant at the tournament John Gallagher.

Group 7 saw the unseeded Andrew Loane qualify ahead of seventh seed Donegal’s Paul Gallagher who also qualified with wins over Strongtower’s “Mr HMV” Ciaron Nelson, Belfast’s Ray “Two Dogs” Fleming and another huge teenage prospect from Ballymoney, Adam Wallace.

The eighth and final group had Ballyclare’s Mark Gordon top the group with Francis Shirley from Osmond taking second spot ahead of Ballyclare’s Ian Davies and Strongtower’s ever-improving Stevie Balmer.

The County Antrim Open’s sixteen qualifiers then formed four further groups of four with the top two in each group progressing to the quarter -finals. The first group saw top seed Mark McAllister win on count back from Barry Dickson who actually beat him in the group.  Second seed Gary Crawford won his group thanks to a five set victory over Andrew Davies who finished second. The third group saw Daryl Strong march majestically into the quarters with Philip Jamison finishing in second spot. The final two places in the quarter-finals were secured by Pawel Sulkowski and Richard Davies who caused the first major upset of the day by defeating Philip Wallace in five close sets.

In the first quarter-final Mark McAllister met his Waterloo in the form of Philip Jamison who defeated him in four sets 12-10, 12-14, 11-6, and 11-6. Philip was joined in the semis by Gary Crawford who defeated Barry Dickson 7-11, 11-7, 11-4, 11-6; Daryl Strong who defeated Richard Davies 11-1, 11-4, 12-10 and Pawel Sulkowski who defeated Andrew Davies 11-9, 11-9, 11-6.

The first semi saw Daryl Strong defeat Gary Crawford in three sets 11-3, 11-8 and 11-1. The second semi final was the match of the tournament with Philip Jamison eventually defeating long time rival Pawel Sulkowski in five pulsating sets of attack and counter attack, winning 8-11, 13-11, 5-11, 11-9 and 11-8.

A spent Jamison could not raise his game a second time as Daryl Strong retained his title in imperious form 11-3, 11-2, 11-3.

Class 2 Graded tournament

The Class 2 tournament proved very competitive with Roy Coard reaching the final with victories over Robin Agnew, Vlad Chucklev and Aaron Muguti. His opponent in the final was Ted Mahaffey who reached it by defeating Arnold Morgan, Ciaron Nelson and Ian Davies.

Coard continued his excellent form into the final to defeat a battling  Mahaffey in four sets 11-6, 11-7, 9-11 and 11-6.

Class 3 Graded tournament

The Class 3 final was contested between two Osmond club-mates Gary McAllister and Paul McGuiggan. McClelland had defeated McGuiggan in the group stage but McGuiggan qualified second so progress to the semi final were he defeated local favourite Jimmy O’Hara. Gary McClelland recorded an excellent semi final win against Two Dogs Fleming and in the final he scrapped passed McGuiggan in five tense sets winning 12-10 in the fifth set.

Class 4 Graded tournament

The Class 4 final was contested by Colin Clements and Strongtower’s Jonny Wilson. Wilson had got to the final with a revenge five set win over Jonny Moore who had knocked him out of the Ballymena Open in December; a straight sets win over James Wharton, who was making his tournament debut; and a hard fought semi final win over Donegal’s John Gallagher. Clements had defeated Stevie Balmer in the quarters and won a titanic semi against Adam Wallace in five sets. The final witnessed a victory of guile over youth with Clements securing the title in straight sets 11-8, 11-7 and 11-7.

The tournament will be remembered for the imperious performance of Daryl Strong who retained his title without dropping a single set in the ten games he played on his way to the title. But equally important is the emergence of some bright new youngsters on the tournament scene such as Vlad Chucklev, Adam Wallace, John Gallagher not to mention Strongtower’s crop of young talent improving each year.

Irish “One Point” Championship

The County Antrim Open was the setting for the inaugural Irish “One Point” Table Tennis championship. Held during the interval between rounds one and two of the Co Antrim Open, forty-two competitors took in the highly entertaining competition where one point secured victory in a single  game format played on a strictly knock out basis.

Even with such a curtailed format the cream rose to the top with Andrew Dennison, Philip Jamison, Mark McAllister Paul Gallagher reaching the semi finals. It was Philip Jamison who emerged victorious to become the “One Point” Irish Champion 2013.

The Strongtower Secretary Norman McBride thanked, on behalf of the County Antrim TT League, all the competitors for their sporting behaviour. He thanked Ballymena Academy for the use of their gymnasiums,  ex-Irish international table tennis star Jimmy O’Hara for doing the presentations, Arnold Morgan and his fellow umpires for their assistance, Andrew Dennison Sports for the ball sponsorship, Paul McGuiggan for organising catering, all the people that assisted with setting up and taking down of the tables, surrounds and umpires tables etc. and Table Tennis Ulster/ITTA for  advertising  the event.

Many thanks to Norman McBride for this comprehensive report.