ACCORDING to Judy Murray, her son, Andy’s, love of tennis was partly inspired by playing table tennis on the kitchen table with shortbread tin lids and a net fashioned from cereal boxes.
So just as Andy Murray had to wait for what seemed like an eternity to end Britain’s wait for a Grand Slam champion, perhaps Paul Drinkhall’s time at the Commonwealth Games will come.
Cleveland’s table tennis talisman won his third Commonwealth medal this afternoon as England lost 3-1 to Singapore in the men’s team final – an exact repeat of the result of the 2010 final in Delhi - but you suspect he would trade all of them for a gold, such is the rarity of such a prize in this country.
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He has three more chances this week in the singles, doubles and mixed doubles in Glasgow, and given that he was England’s best player by a distance in today's final, there is every chance he will be involved in the medal matches in all three competitions.
Like Murray on a rather bigger, outdoor court, surely he cannot keep on being the metaphorical bridesmaid forever?
“It feels like it’s getting closer,” said Drinkhall. “That was a really tight match and it really came down to a couple of crucial moments here and there that didn’t go for us.
“It’s nice to have another medal, but I’m not going to lie, I’d really like one of those gold ones. I don’t feel like it’s too far away because I’m playing well and hopefully I’ll have another couple of chances before the end of the week.
“I really think I can come out with a medal in the singles, and both of the doubles competitions should be good for us. Winning any medal at the Commonwealth Games is an achievement, but I need the gold to complete the set. I believe we can medal in every event, and that’s the mindset I’ll go be going in with.”
All sports involve a degree of psychological manipulation, but few can match the mental challenge of table tennis, with the opposing players eyeballing each other over the net standing just a couple of yards apart.
It’s cat and mouse, attack against defence, with the timing of an attacking move often meaning as much as the technical execution of the stroke.
Drinkhall was a bundle of energy from the very first shot of his singles game with Jian Zhan, punching his fist whenever a point went his way and exuding positivity and confidence whatever the scoreboard was showing. Even the breaks to towel down appeared choreographed to gain a mental advantage.
It worked as he raced through a run of seven unanswered points that effectively settled the first game, but you don’t make it into the world’s top 35 without knowing a few mind games of your own, and Zhan regrouped to claim the final two games and overhaul a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2. At times, the pace of his shot-making and speed with which he flicked his wrists was genuinely remarkable.
“I think my game was the chance for us,” said Drinkhall. “If I could have won that, I think it would have given the team a lot of momentum and put a lot of pressure onto them.
“There were a couple of very close points that I didn’t quite play right, and I just didn’t get a good start in the decider. That gave them the momentum going into the next match, and their guy was able to put a lot of pressure on Liam (Pitchford), when it should have been the other way round.”
Drinkhall, a fervent Manchester United supporter, has the look of Wayne Rooney about him, while the next Englishman on the table, Pitchford, resembled a slightly less gangly Peter Crouch. It was obvious that they weren’t the footballers in question, though, as they were competing in a final.
Having fallen 2-0 behind after the opening two singles rubbers, England desperately needed a positive response when Drinkhall teamed up with Andrew Baggaley in the doubles, and it arrived as the English duo won by three games to one.
Doubles table tennis is a chaotically frenetic affair, with each player having to hit alternate shots. The hardest task was often getting out of the way in order to allow your partner get to the table for his shot, and Drinkhall’s mobility was a key factor in England’s success.
It set up the potential for a grandstand finale, but Baggaley was unable to take the final into a deciding rubber as he suffered a 3-0 defeat to Zhan.
“It might not look like it, but a lot has changed from four years ago in Delhi,” said Drinkhall. “They’ve got a much stronger team because they’ve brought in a couple of players from China, and we pushed them much harder than we did last time.
“I think we’ve closed the gap. These guys are very experienced, and they’ve played in the Chinese league for a lot of years. We’re still quite young guys and by the time another four years comes round, that’s when we should be at our peak.”