Table tennis players from all over Ulster converged on Wellington Presbyterian Church on Saturday to participate in the 2016 Ballymena Table Tennis Open.
The qualifying competition commenced at 10.00am sharp with six groups each containing four or five players. In order to qualify for the Open Singles the players had to be placed in the top two in their respective Group. Players finishing third, fourth or fifth were entered in to the Class 2 or Class 3 events.
In Group 1 the top seed Thomas Early (Ormeau TTC) emerged unscathed with straight set wins over Bangor’s Warren Ewing in second, Larne’s Alan McGuffogg in third, and Coleraine’s young starlet Colm Darragh fourth.
Group 2 went as planned with second seed Philip Wallace (Ballyclare TTC) only dropping one set on his way to topping the group with Bangor’s John Ewing in second, the evergreen Ted Mahaffy from Belfast in third, Ballymena newcomer Arvin Caballero fourth and young Ballymoney player David McCaughern fifth.
Group 3 had Zak Early, twin brother of top seed Thomas, topping the group without dropping a set. Second was Belfast’s Andrew McCann, third was Belfast’s Mark Gordon, fourth was Lisburn’s Ray Fleming and fifth was Ballymena’s Jim Kelso.
A very competitive Group 4 witnessed the first shock of the tournament as fourth seed Paul Gallagher from Donegal could only finish third with top place going to Randalstown’s Andrew Davies and Banbridge’s Alex Bartusik second. Fourth place went to Belfast’s Jeff Irvine with Tom McCreery fifth.
Group 5 had fifth seed Cookstown’s Mark McAllister top the group with Belfast’s Adrian Pietris second, ex St Louis’s student Matthew McCann third and Banbridge stalwart Arnold Morgan fourth.
The final group also produced a minor upset as sixth seed Roy Coard was demoted to second spot behind Larne’s Philip Jamison. Khalil Amir third, Ballymena legend Jimmy O’Hara fourth and Ballymena lad Michael Allen fifth.
In the second round the twelve players that qualified for the Ballymena Open title were further whittled down to eight with the bottom player in each of the four groups of three leaving the party. This saw the departure of father and son Warren and John Ewing, Adrian Pietris and Andrew McCann.
The third round was a straight knock out. In the quarter finals top seed Thomas Early defeated Philip Jamison 11-6, 11-2 and 11-7, Roy Coard won a classic encounter with Mark McAllister 11-8, 5-11, 7-11, 11-6 and 11-9, Phil Wallace fought back from 10-4 down in the fourth set to beat Alex Bartusik 14-12 and Zak Early defeated Andrew Davies 11-5, 11-3 and 11-6.
In the first semi-final an exhausted Roy Coard had no answer to the all-round skills of Thomas Early losing 11-0, 11-3 and 11-2. The second semi-final was much tighter with two attack minded players giving their all. Wallace, who had won the title in 2012, took the first set 11-8. The second game was nip and tuck the whole way with Early edging it 14-12. This seemed to invigorate young Early as he took the third set 11-7. The fourth set was another extremely tight game with Early once again edging it 12-10 and recording his first ever win over “Fast Phil”.
The final saw the twin brothers pitted against each other, with each knowing the others respective strengths and weaknesses. A tactical game was anticipated but instead the two lads played open flowing table tennis with the more defensive minded Thomas taking the first two sets 11-7 and 12-10. The third set would prove crucial in the match as Zak took it 14-12 despite the best efforts of an exasperated Thomas. As in his semi-final, Zak found an extra gear to force the match to a decider, taking the fourth set 11-7. The fifth set was another thriller and with the score at 11 -11 and both lads exhausted from their exertions, the game was too close to call. But the next two points were won, after lengthy rallies, by Zak Early who added the Ballymena Open to the North Antrim Open which he won earlier this year. A fitting finale after eight hours and 375 sets of table tennis.
If Zak Early wins the County Antrim Open in January 2017 he will be the first ever player to hold all three titles at the same time.
The Class 2 event saw Paul Gallagher take the event with wins over Alan McGuffogg, Arnold Morgan, Mark Gordon, Jeff Irvine and, in the final, Matthew McCann.
The Class 3 event was won by Colm Darragh who defeated Michael Allen, David McCaughern and, in the final, Jim Kelso.
The final of the novelty sandpaper bat one-point competition was a battle of the Phils’ with Phil Wallace defeating Phil Jamison, yes you guessed it, 1-0!
This Saturday Wellington once again plays host to one of the top table tennis events of the season the Ulster Masters. Table tennis players from England and the Republic of Ireland will compete against Ulster’s top veterans over four different age categories, the over 40s, over 50s, over 60s and over 70s. Anyone wishing to watch the event will be made most welcome. Matches start at 10am with the over 40s event.