Will Bayley shakes off Strictly injury to grab Paralympic table tennis silver
There was to be no tabletop celebration for Will Bayley this time. The larger than life table tennis star, who won a famous gold in the TT7 event in Rio, was outmuscled by Yan Shuo of China in this year’s final and had to take succour in silver instead.
The Englishman had the early momentum but a decisive moment in the second game saw Shuo grow in confidence and use his physical size to dominate the match. The Chinese athlete came back from one game down to win 3-1, the final game a superb test of contrasting styles that was ultimately decided by Shuo’s smash. But to describe Bayley as beaten wouldn’t quite feel right.
“He played well today and deserved to win. You’ve got to give it to him,” Bayley said after Shuo won 4-11, 11-9, 11-2, 11-8. “I believe I’m the best player in the world so it’s a bit disappointing that I didn’t win it because I probably am on my day. He played well and I missed some crucial shots, it is what it is.”
After springing to fame in Rio, Bayley enjoyed a taste of the celebrity lifestyle, appearing on both Celebrity First Dates and Strictly Come Dancing. A ligament injury sustained in rehearsals for the show’s Hallowe’en Special turned out to be scary, with Bayley unable to play again for a year.
Had the Tokyo Games gone ahead as planned in 2020 Bayley would not have made it. To be ready even for this year he has required an intense period of preparation, with the 33-year-old away from his partner and two daughters for six months at a training camp in Sheffield.
“I’ve been away for such a long time,” Bayley said. “Since I said I was going to try and get a medal in Tokyo, I haven’t been home. I’ve only seen my family one day every other week. I’ve missed out on birthdays, walking, talking. But at the end of the day they’ll be proud of me and they’ll be saying, you missed a lot of time away but look at what you achieved. I’m looking forward to spending some time with them after Tokyo. That will be really cool.”
A torn anterior cruciate ligament is a serious injury for any athlete, but especially so for Bayley. He has arthrogryposis in all four of his limbs, a condition which affects the mobility of the joints but also limits the ability to put on muscle mass. It meant Bayley’s rehabilitation was especially long and hard. “Because it’s harder to build muscle you don’t get that support of the knee joint,” Bayley said, “which is crucial for table tennis when you’re always doing that sort of thing.”
In Shuo he faced an opponent who is a single-limb amputee. “He has a good playing hand and he also has one good leg. In fact he’s got two good hands and I haven’t got any good hands,” Bayley said. In their matchup, however, it was Bayley whose hands were deft and supple, his technique and variety of shots asking questions which challenged Shuo only to be ultimately matched by his speed and strength.
Bayley romped through the first game, winning by 11 points to four. He was 9-8 up in the second game too, only to send a backhand long. Shuo went on to win that, then took the third 11-2 and with it a psychological advantage. Bayley fought back in the fourth and won some rallies impressively with his constant rotation of shots, but Shuo’s fearsome forehand came back time and time again until it broke through decisively 11-8 to win both the game and the match.
The missed backhand, Bayley believed, proved to be the defining moment. “If I make that ball I think I probably would have won 3-0,” he said. “Sport is decided on those little details, a millimetre miss and then you lose the match. I should have probably got that ball on and then you’re looking at 2-0 up and he’s got a massive mountain to climb.”
Bayley calls himself a Paralympics specialist and already has his eye on Paris 2024. The training camp may not resume immediately, but Bayley says he can’t afford to take his eye off that celluloid ball.
“I want to stay active,” he said. “When I tore my ACL I put on three stone. That can’t happen again or I’m not going to make it back probably. I’ve got to stay active, keep training and playing. Also I love it. After the last Paralympics I took three or four months off and got depressed. So this time as soon as I get back I will be playing.”
With that Bayley was off but a photo soon popped up on Instagram. Down on one knee he had a bouquet of flowers in one hand, the other was a boxer’s raised fist. The caption read: “Worked hard for this so might as well enjoy it. We go again in France.”