County Antrim Open

County Antrim Open: Sulkowski Triumphant – but only just!

There was drama and excitement in abundance at the County Antrim Open table tennis championships in Ballymena Academy last Saturday as Academy Strongtower players Pawel Sulkowski and the evergreen Jimmy O’Hara lifted some of the silverware, Larne’s topspin ace Philip Jamison had the locals cheering with a sparkling display and Cookstown’s Ivan Jeffers showed some of his old magic on his return to the sport.

The tournament attracted a large entry from all over Ireland and the excellent playing conditions produced some marvellous matches. In the main event Pawel Sulkowski defeated clubmate Mark McAllister 11 – 5, 11- 5, 11 – 2, Magherally’s Stephen Turkington 11-5, 11- 5, 11-3 and Ballymoney’s flamboyant Mark McGuigan 7-11, 14 – 12, 11 – 9, 3 – 11, 11 – 6 in the quarter finals. At the other end of the draw Phil Jamison defender Randolf Loney 5 – 11, 11- 5, 11 – 6, 11 – 13, 11 – 6, Belfast’s cagey Ted Mehaffey 9 – 11, 11- 7, 11 -8, 11 – 6 and Jack Cash 11-7, 10 – 11, 11 -8, 11-3 in the quarter-final.

The first semi-final matched Pawel against the top seed Philip Wallace who had already survived a bruising four set quarter-final encounter against his nemisis Academy Strongtower’s Gary Crawford. This semi-final proved a real sparkler as veteran Sulkowski tried to counter the rasping forehand loops and drives of his younger opponent. Sulkowski took the first set only for Wallace to take the next two. Sulkowski rallied in the fourth to set up a exciting fifth and deciding set which he won by the narrowest of margins.

The other semi final saw Hungarian Tibor Pofok, conqueror of the number 2 seed Wexford’s Brian Devereux in the quarter finals, take on the youthful and ever improving Philip Jamison. Jamison won the first set narrowly 11 – 9 and took the second set 11-7 with some wonderful attacking forehand and backhand loops. Pofok, a winner in Belfast a few weeks earlier where he had comfortably defeated Jamison, took the third set at a cantor 11 – 4. But Jamison put on a wonderful exhibition of attacking table tennis to win the fourth set 11-6.

The final promised to be a red hot encounter with two attack minded players giving the fifty or so spectators a game to remember. Jamison reeled off the first two sets 11-8 and 11-8 with some unbelievable forehand and backhand drives. Sulkowski managed to claim the third set with some spectacular loops and dogged defence when required. Jamison rushed into an 8-2 lead in the fourth set and the match seemed as good as over. However a few loose shots from Jamison let Sulkowski back into the game and apparently drained the confidence of the young Jamison. A few more misses from Jamison and some spectacular shots from Sulkowski brought the game to 8- all. Sulkowski maintained the momentum to snatch the fourth set 11-9. Despite the shock and obvious disappointment of losing the fourth set, Jamison started the deciding set promisingly with hit and counter hit bringing ohs and ahs from the spectators. But a net point for Sulkowski gave him a two point advantage at 9 -7 and he held on to this to the end of the game winning 11-9. Both players plough their trade in the County Antrim league and both players would have been worthy winners of the County Antrim Open but it is Sulkowski who adds this title to his County Antrim vets title of 2008 and Ulster veterans title of 2009.

The Grade two tournament was of a high standard with local interest in this event right up to the semi-final stage. Cookstown’s Ivan Jeffers had decided to use this tournament as part of his table tennis comeback. He defeated Ballymoney’s Gary McClelland 11-6, 11-7, 11-4 before defeating the ever improving Stephen Clarke from Knockagh in the Quarter-finals 11 – 3, 11 – 7, 11- 6. In the bottom half of the draw Dublin’s Georgi Hubenov defeated John Walker 11-8, 11-7, 11-5, Dublin’s Anthony Dobbs 11- 3, 11 – 7, 11- 8, and Coleraine’s Anselm Brankin 11-5, 11-5, 11-6 in the quarter finals.

Ivan Jeffers had a real tough semi final against Christchurch’s redoubtable Roy Coard, emerging victorious in five sets 12 – 10, 7 – 11 12 -10, 7 – 11 12 – 10. Georgi Hubinov looked like he would steam-roller his way to the final when he defeated Ballyclare’s Ian Davies 11 – 1 in the first set. But Davies used guile and composed defence to take the second set 11 – 8. However Hubenov’s speed and power of shot told in the end as he reeled off the third and fourth sets 11-8 and 11-8.

The final was an all action match with Georgi Hubenov’s attack being countered by Jeffers who was recapturing the old form of old that made him a feared opponent all over Ulster. Jeffers took the first set 11 – 7 only to lose the second by the same margin. The third set was pivotal with both players having set points before Jeffers clinched it 14 – 12. The fourth set saw Jeffers hold off the Hubenov attack to win 11-9.

The Grade three tournament had local interest all the way to the final. Academy Strongtower’s Wayne Charleton had defeated Coleraine teenager Andrew Mulholland 11-7, 11 – 6, 1 – 5 before defeating club mate Peter Neeson 11-3, 11-4, 7 -11, 11 -8. In the semi-final he defeated his team mate Andrew McIlmoyle in a real close battle 11 – 7, 12 – 10, 10 – 12, 11 -7. The other half of the draw had favourite, CBPPU’s Barry Dickson defeat Academy Strongtower’s Johnny Wilson 11-2, 11 – 6, 11- 4, Coleraine’s James Dillon in the quarters 11-3, 11 – 5, 11 – 6 and Rasharkin teenage sensation Thomas McCann 11 4, 116, 11 – 6 in the semi-final. Dickson continued his total dominance of the Grade 3 event by defeating Charleton in straight sets 11 – 4, 11 – 5, 11 – 2.

The Grade 4 tournament saw more local success as octogenarian Jimmy O’Hara defeated Ballymoney’s Paul McGuigan and Larne’s Alan McGuffog before setting up a semi final clash against Ingus Feldhanis from Latvia. The semi was a dogged affair with O’Hara coming from two sets to one down to defeat Feldhanis 11 – 4, 12 – 14, 6 – 11, 11 – 7 , 11- 7.

The bottom half of the draw had Knockagh’s Colin Clements defeat Ballyclare’s Thomas Davies, and Academy Strongtower’s Peter McCrumb before clashing with Donegal’s Mark Johnston in a tight semi final which he won 11 -6, 11 -9, 11-5.

The final proved a step too far for Clements as the experienced O’Hara wo in straight sets 11 – 9, 11 – 8, 11-9.

The County Antrim Committee would like to thank the Academy Strongtower club for hosting the event and Ballymena Academy for the use of the halls and facilitating the growth of table tennis in the area. Thanks also go to Andrew Dennison and Ted Mehaffey for the loan of nets and scoreboards and Thomas McLeister and Amanda Mogey for their help in the organising of the event.