Inspired Chesterfield table-tennis star Liam Pitchford led England to a magnificent bronze medal at their home World Cup -– and almost toppled the leading Chinese player along the way.
Pitchford was in sensational form at the Copper Box Arena on London’s Olympic Park, opening up with victory over 14-year-old Japanese wonderkid Tomokazu Harimoto, who is already ranked number 11 in the world.
Pitchford, ranked at 85, saved four game points from 10-6 down in the first game and pulled away to win 3-0 (13-11, 11-8, 11-5).
That made it 1-1 in the match after Paul Drinkhall and Sam Walker had been beaten in the doubles by Jin Ueda andKoki Niwa. Ueda then defeated Drinkhall before world number six Niwa clinched victory for Japan by defeating Pitchford 3-0 (16-14, 11-8, 11-7).
It left England needing to beat Egypt to get into the quarter-finals and Pitchford’s 3-1 (11-7, 3-11, 11-7, 11-4) win over Mohamed El-Beiali in the second match helped them to a 3-1 success.
The quarter-finals pitted England against Brazil and, after opening doubles victory, Pitchford demolished world number 16 Hugo Calderano 3-0 (11-4, 11-6, 11-6).
Drinkhall lost to Gustavo Tsuboi, but Pitchford sealed it with a 3-1 (6-11, 11-8, 11-5, 11-9) scoreline against Eric Jouti.
The semi-final against all-conquering China saw Ma Long and Xu Xin convincingly beat Walker and Drinkhall. Pitchford was up next against world number two Fan Zhendong and traded blows with his illustrious opponent in a match of superb quality, eventually losing 3-1 (8-11, 11-3, 11-9, 11-9).
Ma Long, the world and Olympic champion then hammered Walker 3-0 (11-5, 11-1, 11-2) to seal it for China, who went on to defeat second seeds Japan in the final to win the trophy for the seventh time in succession.
Pitchford was delighted to add bronze to his medal of the same colour from the World Team Championships in 2016.
He said: “I’m over the moon. I’ve been working more smartly recently, with psychologists and one-to-one with the coaches, working on small things in my game that I needed to make the step up.
“It’s been up and down, but now I feel I’m flourishing. I can’t really explain it. I’m just playing well and enjoying the moment.”
On his defeat to Zhendong, he added: “I had him under pressure, especially in the third and fourth games. I played well, but in the end a loss is a loss. There are a lot of positives to take from here. I have a long way to go, I know that, but this is a step on the road to getting there.
“We’ve not been bad as a team. World Championships bronze, Team World Cup bronze and Olympics quarter-final is not bad for three guys from England.”