Updated: Mar 2, 2020
As we look ahead to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we begin our special coverage of hopeful Derbyshire participation and past Derbyshire Olympians/Paralympians with an extended interview of table tennis maestro Liam Pitchford.
Pitchford is from Chesterfield and is looking to qualify for a third Olympic Games in a row. He made his Olympics debut at London 2012 after only just turning 19 years of age and he also participated in Rio 2016 for Team GB.
Pitchford has been the most notable British face in the sport of Table Tennis in the past ten years and can already have a career to be proud of considering table tennis is not widely associated to be a successful sport for Great Britain as a whole. Pitchford is currently ranked 23rd in the Table Tennis men’s singles world rankings and reached as high as 12th in August last year.
Now at the age of 26, Pitchford’s credentials is an impressive one: a five time national singles champion, a Commonwealth gold medallist in the men’s doubles alongside Paul Drinkhall and an encouraging Rio 2016 Olympics where he was part of a Team GB squad that reached the Quarter-Finals of the team event (only losing out to huge favourites China) and getting through to the Round of 32 in the singles event.
Since the interview, Pitchford won his sixth nation singles title as well as the doubles title with Drinkhall at the national Championships. I visited Liam recently at the National Championships to interview him about his current form, Tokyo 2020 and much more.
Can you give a brief overview as to what events are coming up in the near future for yourself?
“Obviously this weekend, we’ve got the National Championships. In the grand scheme of things, not the most important tournament on my schedule but it’s also one that’s always nice to win. I’ve won it five times before now, six would put me level with a couple of players that are on the all-time list.
"Then focusing after that, we just had our World Championships postponed. It was supposed to be in South Korea but that’s gone due to the Coronavirus. So that’s been postponed, that was due to be at the end of March. That was leading into the Olympic qualifiers at the beginning of April, so that’s still on the horizon and that’s the main focus at the moment.
"So I’ll be heading there which is in Moscow, we’ll see how that goes, hopefully I’ll qualify at the first attempt, if not, there are more chances but it’d be nice to just go and get it done and hopefully have that peace of mind to go and prepare for the Olympics.”
In terms of your form going into such a busy schedule, you recently played in the Hungarian Open where you made the semi-finals, was that a tournament that you were hoping maybe to win or were you satisfied with what you achieved going into some huge tournaments?
“Yeah, I think the year started off on a bit of a disappointing note in the team qualification for the Olympics, we didn’t manage to qualify. But then I turned it around, I went straight to the European Top 16, I got to the quarter-finals, probably wasn’t as happy with my performance as I’d liked. I felt like I was on the way to playing well.
"Then I came to the Hungarian Open and it just clicked. I started playing really well, I felt good, I was disappointed to lose in the semi-finals because it was at 2-2 and I had chances but didn’t quite take them but overall I was playing well and I think I’m on the way back to where I want to be.”
When the Summer Olympics comes round, there’s a few sports there that we don’t really see very often on television. Speaking from your own experiences, how easy or accessible is it to get into table tennis?
“I think it’s very easy and accessible. There’s a lot of clubs around the country. If you go on the Table Tennis England website, you’ll find a list of all the clubs. They do a lot of Ping, where they put up tables outside train stations and stuff like that just to try and get people involved. Like you say, it’s not really the most mainstream sport.
"We don’t really get much TV time probably due to the fact that it’s quite a fast-paced sport and quite a skill-based sport so people don’t really understand the spin and speed that goes on as they would if they watched in real life. But it is growing, I think it’s the second or third most played sport in the world country-wise, so we’re getting there.”
Does the sport require a lot of funding? For example since Rio 2016, has table tennis itself received more funding like in terms of lottery funding or has it stayed the same?
“No, actually after London 2012 we sort of lost our funding for table tennis, so that’s why I moved abroad to train. In the lead-up to Tokyo, we received some Aspiration funding which has actually helped us a lot. So we’ve had some in the lead-up to Tokyo basically, but the general funding, we’re not on that in table tennis.
"But we play for clubs, we have personal sponsors that we get by and make it work. It is what it is. I don’t really expect unless we’re winning medals frequently, which I think we’ve shown that we can, so it’d be nice to get a bit more recognition. I think if we do that on a regular basis then obviously that would come.”
In the last two Olympic Games, Team GB have won a lot of medals in quite a lot of sports where they’ve not previously had that much success in. Looking ahead to the next couple of Olympic Games, what are the chances of Team GB picking up medals within table tennis?
“In Rio we lost in the quarter-finals of the team event to China. For me, I think if we’d have played any other team, we would have had a good chance of going even further. So we’ve shown the potential. We’ve won World Team medals, World Team Cup medals, Commonwealth Games gold.
"I think if we continue to work, nothing in sport is ever guaranteed, but if we perform on the day I think we’re capable of beating anyone. I’m not going to say that we’re capable of winning Olympic medals but that is the goal. In our mindset, anything is possible.”
Just going back to the last Olympics, and this might be a pretty simple question, but I think a lot of readers would want to know just what it is *like* to actually participate in an Olympic Games. Including yourself, three people from Derbyshire competed at the last Olympics so it’s pretty limited company. Is it like living in a big university campus or like living inside a crazy bubble? What’s it like?
“Yeah, you’re in kind of a bubble. It’s like a security zone, you can go outside and see things but you are kind of in a bubble. It’s quite surreal, surrounded by the best athletes in the world. Everyone’s focused on their event. You see how they prepare and how other sports do things different, so it’s quite nice to see that side of things and to just get to be around as one team, Team GB, it’s a proud feeling.”
Have you been at an actual Opening Ceremony before where athletes will enter the stadium?
“Yeah, I went in London. So that was probably even more special because it was in London and everything.”
It seemed to surprise everyone with just how successful London 2012 was in terms of how the Opening Ceremony was rated as well as how well a lot of Team GB’s athletes got on. Could you tell at the time that this was a really special moment for Great Britain?
“Yeah, there was quite a buzz around the whole village and around the whole of Team GB that everyone’s going to do something special. It was nice to be a part of that. At the time I was quite young and I was just taking in the whole experience. It was just amazing, just to be part of that. It’s difficult to explain really.”
I remember watching it at the time on TV and it was one of the very few moments where you feel like you are watching something historic so it must have been quite a mad experience. Did you ever at times randomly see someone like Usain Bolt or pundits like Michael Johnson?
“Yeah. We did see Usain Bolt around. He was just all the time surrounded by hundreds of people that were wanting a photo or an autograph. Yeah, it was just mad. You’ve got all these big sports stars and you’re part of it and you’re like, I’ve made it! This is what I wanted to do when I was a little kid, to be part of the Olympics and the next step is to be successful there.”
You’ve opened up more about the mental health aspect of sport. I understand you do some work with Samaritans as well. How difficult was it to open up about that because it can still, in some sports, be a taboo subject?
“I think over the last few years it’s definitely got better and I think a lot more people are speaking out especially in sports. I think that helps the wider reach of the whole subject. For me, it was hard opening up.
"The first time, I was a bit nervous at how it would be taken but after that I felt like it was, not a relief, but like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. If me speaking out can help one other person then that obviously makes me feel even better about speaking out.”
I think the key word is perception. Do you think it’s that which, not just held you back, but holds back other sports stars from speaking out earlier about their issues with mental health?
“I think it is yeah, people always say especially towards men to just ‘man up’, to just get on with it. You don’t need to. You can talk about your feelings. If you’re not feeling good, there’s no point holding it in to help you progress. This definitely shaped me as a person. I’m definitely better for it, speaking out, and I think I’ve become a stronger person. When I go on the table now, I don’t really fear anything as I did back then.”
Has it improved your game since opening up?
“Yeah, definitely. I think since then, I’ve been able to relax and just focus on table tennis and the things that really matter to me. It’s definitely helped me. Everyone gets nervous when they’re about to compete but the fears aren’t there that would have been back then because I feel like everything is out on the table and I can just play.”
What kind of work do you do with the Samaritans?
“I go to their events if I have time. I promote on social media. They have ‘The Big Listen’ every year and 24/7 they’re open. It’s just to get the word out really about what they’re there to do and how they can help people.”
So Team GB have not qualified for the team event at Tokyo 2020 but can you explain the qualification process for the singles event?
“Yeah, so the first one in Moscow is a European qualification tournament. Europe has five spots. So that would mean getting to the quarters or semis guarantees and then if we don’t qualify there, there’s a chance at the World Qualifications. That’s in Doha at the end of May. I’m not sure how many spots remain on there, I don’t think it’s too many. But if we don’t qualify there then there are some spots based on world ranking so that’s where, with my ranking at the moment, I’m in a good position. I go to around twenty, my best is twelve, it’s up and down.”
If you qualified for Tokyo 2020, this would be your third Olympic Games. Is there anything you’ve gained from your Olympic experiences before that can help you perform even better for Tokyo?
“Yeah, I think so. I think last time in Rio was kind of, you know, I was in a bit of a bad place like we spoke about before. But I still went out there and just tried to leave everything out there and just play. That proves to me that I can compete at that level and then obviously we had the Commonwealth Games in 2018 in Gold Coast where I won my first gold medal. I’ve got eight Commonwealth medals but I hadn’t got a gold at that time, so I managed to get the gold.”
Was that like a monkey off your back winning that first gold medal?
“Yeah, definitely. It just showed that I can win events. Take it into Tokyo, we’ve been there, we’ve done it, it’s just about getting into the right place, preparing well and performing on the day which I know we’re capable of.”
So let’s say you qualify for Tokyo 2020. When that has finished and you look back on it, what would you need to have done to deem it as a good Olympics for yourself?
“Good question! It’s difficult to say at this time. I don’t want to say a round and then end up not qualifying! I think if I go out there and give it my best and know I can’t have given any more, then that’s the first step. Then I think the results come with that.”
You’re becoming renowned for a trick shot where you play a shot with your arm around your back which went viral last year. Is that something that you’ve recently added to your repertoire of shots and is that a common shot to see in this sport?
“No, not that common. It’s weird, I’ve done it a few times in practice. It’s just kind of a reaction. Not going to say I’m not in the right position to play a normal shot, but the ball’s gone that way, they’ve hit a good shot, I just kind of react. It helps that I’ve got long arms I think to get it behind my back! Seems to be coming off more often than not at the moment, so yeah it’s nice when you can hit a shot like that and get a bit of recognition.”
It’s been one of the few times where I’ve noticed table tennis get quite a lot of widespread coverage.
“Yeah, that was the thing – it’s not just good for me, it’s good for table tennis in general. To get those big news outlets interested in table tennis. If someone sees that and then next time they’ll say oh, table tennis, I might start watching that now, based on seeing that video. I think it can help grow the sport hopefully.”
So we’re here in Nottingham now for the National Championships. You’re aiming for a sixth national title. What’s the current standard like in British table tennis and how hard will it be to try and win this tournament again?
“It’s always tough to win, we know each other so well. We practice with each other most of the time. I wouldn’t say anyone’s an outright favourite. Obviously ranking-wise, I’m a lot higher than the others at the moment. Paul Drinkhall’s playing really well at the moment as well, me and him have won the last eleven titles out of twelve.
"I think me and him are favourites and then the rest, they can play well, they obviously can compete and beat us but they’ve got to step up a level I’d say to do that. Anything can happen. I’d say that I’m in a good place but obviously last week helps that I played well there. I think six would put me level with Paul, so that’s the aim!”