WHEN most husbands and wives talk about team work at the table, it generally means one carving up the roast for the Sunday dinner while the other gets the vegetables out of the pan. The Drinkhalls, however, do things a little differently.
Domestic bliss for the most successful husband-and-wife team in the history of British table tennis means coming together to beat the best in the world, and on Saturday, in Glasgow’s Scotstoun Sports Complex, they achieved the biggest victory of their combined careers.
A dramatic 3-2 win over English rivals Liam Pitchford and Tin-Tin Ho secured the Commonwealth Games gold medal and, for Loftus’ Paul, represented the final piece of a jigsaw that was beginning to frustrate.
Already boasting two silver medals and a bronze from the 2010 Games in Delhi and the team competition in Glasgow that finished last Monday, Paul was determined to claim the one thing missing from his set.
It looked in the balance as Pitchford and Ho recovered from two games down to square Saturday’s final and force a deciding end, but the Drinkhalls held their nerve in a tense finale to claim victory.
“It’s great to win a mixed doubles event, and it’s great that we can share that with each other,” said Joanna, who first met her husband when they were pitched together as Great Britain team-mates in Sheffield.
“The crowd here have been fantastic right the way through, and the whole atmosphere has been so good. To come out with a gold medal, the moment just gets the better of you. I’m a bit emotional right now.”
No one could deny Paul’s entitlement to the first major gold medal of his career, as over the course of the last eight years or so, he has been the driving force behind an overall improvement that has seen British table tennis become a growing force on the world stage.
The home-nation quota that enabled the 24-year-old to compete at the London Olympics was a key factor in raising the sport’s profile, and while table tennis’ funding was slashed dramatically in the wake of 2012, the building blocks that were put in place ahead of the London Games continue to have an effect.
Paul’s victory in this year’s Spanish Open – the first success by a Briton in a World Tour event for almost 20 years – was a landmark moment, and this week’s events in Glasgow have further underlined the progress that has been made in the last few years.
The Drinkhalls’ gold medal was part of an historic English 1-2-3 in the mixed doubles, Monday’s team silver suggested the gap to the leading players from Singapore has almost been closed, and Pitchford’s bronze in the men’s singles was England’s first ever Commonwealth medal in a singles competition.
“I think we’ve proved England have a very good team all round,” said Paul, who spends most of his time playing for a club side in Belgium. “You see other countries with a good men’s team or a good women’s team, but they don’t combine the two.
“We’ve got a great team spirit on and off the table – the best here by far. I think England have come to tournaments in the past believing we can get medals, but we haven’t always delivered. This time, we have.”
Drinkhall was joined on the mixed doubles podium by Hutton Rudby’s Danny Reed, who secured his first senior medal when he teamed up with Kelly Sibley to win the bronze-medal match against Singapore’s Jian Zhan and Tianwei Feng.
“It feels amazing,” said Reed. “It shows we (him and Sibley) have got a good friendship and a good trust. When you are under pressure, that shows, and I’m really proud of us. For England to have a 1-2-3 is amazing – it’s a dream come true.”