International Table Tennis returned to Ulster with unbridled panache at the Valley Leisure Centre when GB took on Spain as the showpiece of the intense Pre-Olympic Training Week and in front of literally a full house; and the finely tuned skiils of a number of high profile stars caused even the most hardened fan to sit back in amazement.
Spanish National Coach Peter Engel, a former German champion, summed it all up for his Spanish female quartet when he said ‘Coming here has given us the much needed space and time to train with the GB side and to work on our game plans, but the superb welcome and quality facilities have made it so much more worthwhile’.
Alan Cooke (GB Women’s Coach) was careful to protect his intenational performers as they are still competing for those elusive GB team places at London 2012, with Belfast’s Na Liu in strong contention for a place, and the diminuitive Na was in action in front of a noisy and undoubted supportive partisan audience. Na stuttered in the early encounters but came alive to show her quicksilver stlye, almost usurping former European Youth Champion Sara Ramirez, before going down narrowly in the fifth set, later capitulating to Spanish No. 2 Zhu Fang.
Shen Yanfei (World No. 23) led the Spanish side and showed why this dynamic left-hander was the top performer on the night despite topsy turvy battling victories over Kelly Sibley and Joanna Parker (GB); however Parker’s defensive style gave the crowd and the cheer leaders everything to cheer for as she edged out Zhu Fang in five sets.
Spain ended up 7-1 winners over the GB side, but the value of this Pre-Olypmic event, cleverly dubbed ‘A chance to see an Olympic Match before the Games’, was already clear to see with all ages enjoying the sporting excellence on show, and the timely interjections of Ulster’s Jonny Cowan, recently award the honour by the World Federation of ‘a voice of international table tennis’, added to the sense of ‘serious sport made simple by experts’
Several young players got a brief glimpse of life in the spotlight as they were introduced to the crowd and they will return to Newtownabbey Borough Council’s top drawer facility later this week to both observe the Camp training routines an to get one-on-one coaching tips. Table Tennis Ulster Chair Pat Hunter was warm in her appreciation of the support from Sport NI, DCAL and the local authority, but her experienced team did the business with an event full of exquisite detailed planning.
The final session of the International showpiece involved an Exhibition match of scintillating skills by Welsh wizard Ryan Jenkins and Spain’s leading male Oriol Monzo; the exchanges were breath-taking from the sublime to the rediciluous, and Toony (aka John Fall) from Ballymoney added the vital elements of humour. Table Tennis Ulster experienced the first serving of the London 2012 leagacy, while the selection of its Na Liu (2012) and many of the young hopefuls for future Olympics Games will be a just reward for this Olympic Training Week, alongside Sport NI and DCAL’s other international sporting plans
Olympic International Women’s Table Tennis Event (in Valley Leisure Centre) Results: Spain 7 GB 1:
Zhu Fang lost Joanna Parker 2-3; Shen Yanfei bt Kelly Sibley 3-2; Sara Ramirez bt Na Liu 3-2; Galia Dvorak by Naomi Owen 3-1; Zhu Fang bt Na Liu 3-0; Shen Yanfei bt Joanna Parker 3-1; Sara Ramirez bt Naomi Owens 3-1; Galia Dvorak bt Kelly Sibley 3-1.
If you want to see the BBC’s live Link up you can watch on the iplayer link below (coverage starts at 23mins 50secs).
Many thanks to all those who came along and supported the players and also to everyone that helped organise such a successful event!