Kinsale Open, 26th/27th September
It is always a pleasure to write about the West Cork players successes and in the wake of the two day Kinsale Open, that heralds the new Munster Ranking season, it is an even greater pleasure as everyone of the 6 players representing West Cork put in outstanding performances. Each player has their individual goals and expectations and balancing these is tricky enough at the best of times and thankfully it all came together, for once!
The pressure of “should” over “could” is a complex feature of sport facing an athlete within the individual sporting arena. James Kelly has faced this at every Munster event for the last 5 years and once again he delivered at his new U18 age group. As the clear favourite he moved through to the final of the competition leaving little doubt of his recent excellent early season form. His first set in the final against Alexander Ahl may have caused some to question whether he could maintain his 5 year unbroken record as the U15 based in the UK countered James’s power with a fine display of aggressive play. However there was little doubt in his own mind as he drew from his experience and eased to a 3/1 (-9, 6, 5, 8) victory, replicating his U18 Kinsale title from last season.
Club mate Niall O’Driscoll was unfortunate to meet James in the semi final on his journey to the title but this was the result of Niall’s own outstanding performance as he made the semi final of the U18s for the first time recording significant wins against the Tralee duo of Kevin Brown in the first round and Darragh Boyd in the quarter final, with both matches going to 5 sets. Niall eventually finished 4th after losing out to James Barry 3/0 (6, 5, 19). In my mind this was undoubtedly Niall’s best performance at a Munster Ranking, even sweeter for the fact that his mum was there to watch and may be this was even a contributing factor.
Mair was faced with a 6 player round robin event in the U18 Girls and in her first match she found it very hard to breathe being badly affected by a head cold and facing into a very determined and fast improving Nora O’Sullivan from Ballincollig. It was a major upset for the No.2 seed as she went down 3/1.
Mair once again displayed her well documented tenacity and returned to the table to take a straight set victory over Zofia Wawrzyniak from Leeside and Irish No.2 U15. This was a reverse of the result from the Munster Junior League earlier this month. I imagine these two girls are going to have many more battles over the rest of the season! Next up was another strong Leeside girl Thuy Linh Cashman and Mair was happy to take another win 3/1. Shelly Tobin from Kinneigh also suffered a 3/1 loss to Mair and she then had the top seed Kerry O’Mahoney in her final match. This was a tough tactical battle with both girls taking the upper hand on occasions but it was eventually Kerry who took the match and the title 3/2 leaving Mair to the U18 runner up position.
With the new format for Munster events trying to encourage greater participation from our adult club players and U18s the senior event saw two bands of competition. Niall moved into the Band 2 event but was unable to reproduce the form he had shown in the U18s however he did manage to move through to the second round with the count back result going his way. Niall has so often been a victim of the count back he was delighted to finally have one go his way. He reached the semi final but lost out to both Darragh Boyd and Kevin Brown who took their revenge for their defeats in the U18 event earlier. However a 4th placing in both Junior and Senior Band 2 were good result for Niall and a solid platform to build on for the rest of the season.
With the Senior event being mixed this season both Mair and James took to the tables for Munster Senior ranking. Mair played well against the senior men and caused some problems with her up to the table approach pushing both Shane O’Connor and Brian Kelleher who took 3/1 victories. Mair dominated in her last match against U18 finalist Alexander Ahl winning 3/1 and finishing 3rd.
James found himself up against the combined experience of evergreen Philip Shaw and Dan Foley along with Nora O’Sullivan and Polish born Michael Lotkowski. James remained unbeaten and topped his group giving him a quarter final draw against Veteran Champion Pavel Kopac. James surprised many with his performance against this very experienced player taking the match 3/1 (8, -5, 6, 8). This saw James up against the Top seed Alan Walsh from Ballincollig who had a fiercely competitive quarter final against Brian Kelleher (10,-9,-8, 9, 10).
The first set saw one of the best sets of James’s short playing career with some unbelievable service returns and match play. On those rare occasions when everything goes your way you just have to try and maintain the momentum and hang on. Alan showed his class and did just that returning to the table with renewed energy and took the set again with some superb rallies and match play that drew a significant crowd of on lookers. The match swung one way then another as the next two sets were shared by each player leaving the match finally balanced for the final set. However there was to be no balance in the final set as James came out to once again reach the form of his earlier opening exchanges dominating the table and cruising to a very rare win against one of Munster’s best (3,-7,6,-6,4).
The intensity of that match had felt like a final but there was still yet another step to take and composure to be maintained as an epic took place on the adjoining table. Munster No.2 Ian Brown was in a battle for his life against an impressive Philip Shaw. Philip had lost the 3rd 11/2 but the fourth had gone his way to bring him to his second 5 setter after beating Shane O’Connor in the quarters. The flat hitting drive of the veteran continuously cracked into both wings as Ian was driven further away from the table and it was another under dog who took their place in the final (-9, 8, -2, 8, 9).
There was no body in the hall who would have backed these two players to reach the final when James and Philip played earlier in the group stages, least of all themselves. Philip with his excellent two 5 set wins against tough opposition is very fit especially for a veteran but the strength and power of a fresher younger player who was playing some of the best table tennis of his life left a slightly deflated final as James took no mercy on Philip with a dominant 3/0 to take his first Munster Senior title at his very first attempt (6, 7, 5).
Is it for days like this that the players dedicate their time and effort, the hours of preparation in the training hall, the hours spent in the car travelling to and from events, the turning down of invitations to friend’s parties, the late nights and early mornings catching up on homework? If so then it is important to celebrate all their achievements, for it is never easy and shows qualities of determination and dedication that should not be taken for granted. The atmosphere in the car as we reached the “West Cork border” in Bandon was great and James treated us to a victory ice cream from his Senior winnings. These are memories that will stay with us for many years to come and inspire them to keep on working hard and striving to be the best they can be when the results are not quite so sweet.
After a day like Saturday it is hard to get up again for 6am and a 2 hour drive to Kinsale. Thankfully with the U18s out the way it was the turn of the U11s, U13s & U15s and I was chauffeured to Kinsale along with Erik, Jasmine and Suki. With Freddy at the wheel I could relax and take in our beautiful West Cork scenery and relive some of the tales of the previous day.
To me Erik is one of the hardest working players I have had the pleasure of coaching. As an U13 he has shown a lot of promise and took his first U13 Title at UCC last year. His first major event this season was at the Irish Junior Classification and he lost out on ¼ final places in both U13 and U15 on count back. In the U15s the two players ahead of him ended up competing in the final. So to me the signs are positive but it is harder for a 12 year old to look at it that way, there is pressure in expectation and how a player learns to deal with this is crucial and is an important part of the learning process, what we often referred to as gaining experience.
As the third seed Erik cruised through his opening round with a good number of new U13s making up the 8 groups. With the last 16 again easily out the way, the first test came in the guise of Shane O’Callaghan and with Shane taking the first set Erik had to move up a gear to take the match 3/1 (-7, 7, 9, 2). An improving Cian Ross from Ballincollig TTC caused an upset in the 1/4s beating No.2 seed Ciaran O’Donoghue in a 3/0 blitz of his club mate. This set up Erik for a tough match against an inform opponent, his 3/1 victory (-10, 4, 7, 6) eased him into the final.
In the final Erik was in imposing form with both his forehand and backhand topspin game firing and his composed attitude belying any fears he may have been feeling taking on Jake Adler from Cloughjordan, who had taken a fine 3/2 victory over Isaac Leahy. The first set saw him tear into his opponent 11/3 and the second went in similar fashion 11/6. During the second set Jake looked to be carrying a leg injury that was examined during the break. Jake returned to the table but with Erik in a commanding position Jake had to withdraw leaving the final (11/5) and Erik with the first Munster U13 Title of the season.
Over on the U13 Girls tables Jasmine was battling in the 7 player round robin. Without any doubt top of the tree is Irish No.1 Silke Heinen who didn’t drop a set in the event. Second was Thi Ly Cashman also from Leeside with Jasmine in third. I was pleased that the gap between Thi Ly and Jasmine has certainly narrowed and Jasmine recorded a good win against Leah O’Keeffe from Ballincollig but there is a lot of work to do before Jasmine bridges it significantly.
The U15 Boys event started with an implosion of Erik! After the heady heights of the U13 Final Erik struggled to recover and crashed against Cian Ross in his first round group. One of those important lessons I referred to earlier and his recovery to take the other matches in his group and maintain his emotional state is a credit in his favour.
He faced William Jeffery from the hosts South Coast in the last 16 and came out 3/1 winner and a match up with U18 Finalist Alexander Ahl from Leeside. Both players are proud of their Swedish heritage and with Alexander currently No.2 U15 in Ireland he was favourite for “seger.” However no one had told Erik this and he raced into a 2 set lead. May be it was my concentration or may be imagination but I don’t think there was another match being played in the hall at the start of the third set. It isn’t often that a ¼ final generates that much interest. Alexander fought his way back into the match with some terrific hard hitting rallies from both players. Whether Erik could counter Alexander’s momentum was the obvious question. Alexander took the early initiative and the players changed end with Alexander 5/2 ahead and carried on the advantage to 9/5 score line. The question was asked and Erik answered with the balance of power moving in his favour and after the score reached 10/10 Erik continued his momentum to take the final set 12/10 and his semi final place.
Isaac Leahy had a 3/0 victory over Joe Linehan in his quarter final and had already secured a 3rd place finish in the U13 Boys earlier that day. With his defensive style and long pimple play this was a completely different prospect for Erik than the 1/4s verses the open hitting Ahl. A tight tactical game was on the cards and that’s the way it proved. Erik put in some aggressive attacking play with consistently moving Isaac around the table with Isaac trying to cramp Erik’s forehand by playing hard and deep into his body. Erik secured the first set and looked to be maintaining his earlier form but Isaac struck back in the 2nd and 3rd sets preventing Erik from gaining any dominance and he eventually ran out a worthy winner on a 3/1 score line.
It is fully understandable to be disappointed with a loss but it is so much better when you can accept that you still played well and I was delighted that Erik understood this. His 3rd/4th play off saw him up against Cian Ross for the third time that day and Erik displayed how to deal with disappointment with a very solid 3/0 win (6, 6, 8) and a third place finish.
The future of Munster Table Tennis is encouraging when you take a look at our U13 players. The top 4 U15s at this event came from our U13 squad. The places appear interchangeable, with a varied selection of styles and talent aplenty. I doubt this age group will be dominated by just one player as we have had in recent years and that is a healthy situation for both the branch and the players alike.
No I haven’t forgot Suki! Our U11 Girl. She was disappointed that there wasn’t any competition for her as she has been training during the summer and anyone who saw her last year would not fail to see that improvement but she didn’t really get any chance to show it. The other competitors pulled out of her event and she was awarded her first “real” trophy as she called it, but she wasn’t convinced she deserved it. She was entered in the U11 Boys event as consolation and to give her a few games and she won one in her group but moved into the plate competition. She ended up in the final where she seemed very nervous and not her usual feisty self but she did agree she did deserve her plate runner’s up medal.
The problem of the shortage of girls continues to disappoint me. It is hard to get them involved even though table tennis has so much to offer, especially to girls. As Jasmine says she doesn’t like getting hit with a ball or a stick or tackled on a muddy field but she does like making new friends and trying to be good at table tennis. Mair is doing a BT Science project this year as part of her transition and looking into the participation of adolescent girls. Every sport seems to have this problem. I f we have a decline at the adolescent age group and we start with such a small underage level of participation then we will be forced to continue with these round robin group events and the same girls playing over and over again which doesn’t really benefit them in terms of improving their play. How do we address this? I do remember a time when we had 20 girls entered into events, is it that times and our society have change so much? I don’t have the answers but all I do know is we need to try and take some positive steps to change rather than at the moment being forced to adapt to the fact we have so few playing. May be I need to put some thoughts down and post them on my blog page!
As for the beginning of the season, it seems amazing, our performance squad players all seem happy, we have good group of kids in Bantry and I am hoping to start at a new club in Skibbereen soon. We even have a group of regular teenagers (the rarest of breeds) joining us in Goleen on Fridays. Mair and James are off to play at the Welsh Team Championships next weekend, a new adventure and I might even get to see my mum.
Thank you Kinsale, Alan Hurley, Tony Higgins, Tony Leahy and all those who made the Kinsale Open an exciting weekend of table tennis. CHAO! (not too loud I hope)