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PITCHFORD READY TO FIND BEST FORM FOR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS


It wasn't the Olympics that Chesterfield's Liam Pitchford had been dreaming of.


After an extremely difficult build-up to the Tokyo Games with barely any tournaments going ahead in the table tennis calendar since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, preparation couldn't have been any more challenging for the table tennis events at the Olympics last summer.


The start of the pandemic and the ensuing cancellation of over 12 months of scheduled tournaments in the sport came at a time when Pitchford was in the form of his life. If the Olympics had taken place when originally scheduled, Pitchford could well have had an outstanding Games in a sport which Team GB has never had any medal success in. Unfortunately, the huge delay and lack of preparation massively dented his confidence and Pitchford was not able to play near his best once the Games finally came along.


Due to being seeded thanks to his high world ranking, Pitchford didn't enter the men's singles event until the third round stage. Sadly, that was as far as his Olympics adventure went as he lost his third round match to Slovenia's Darko Jorgic in disappointing fashion. With Liam not involved in any of the doubles events, his Olympics campaign lasted for only one match. Understandably, Pitchford was hugely disappointed in how his Olympics fared:


"It was obviously disappointing. I wanted to go further. I had a lot of chances in my match against Darko. But I just wasn't quite playing how I wanted to play and that's why I wasn't taking those chances. If that match was happening now, I'd probably be in a better place to be taking those chances. But that's just how it went. So yeah, I was disappointed, but I'll try and use it as a means of motivation for the upcoming tournaments and for next year."


Thankfully, the table tennis tournament calendar is virtually back to normal now and a few events have taken place across the globe since the Olympics came to an end. With more competitive matches under his belt, Pitchford feels like his best table tennis is beginning to return to him and his performances recently have been impressive and very encouraging:


"Playing more matches has definitely helped me have more confidence. So I had a Top 16 event where I reached the quarter-finals. I felt like I could have gone further there too. Then I went straight into the tournament in Qatar; that went pretty well too. Reached the semi-finals in the singles event; again, I didn't feel like I quite played my best stuff in that semi-final but it was certainly an improvement on previous tournaments this year. I reached the final of the men's doubles event in Qatar too. There were a couple of missed chances for me in that final, but things have definitely improved recently. I feel like I'm really getting my confidence back. It certainly helps me when I'm playing more matches - that's how I find my best form. I've been enjoying actually getting out to places and playing properly again."


The next major event in the sport is coming up very soon in the shape of the World Championships which takes place in November. I asked Liam how many more tournaments should it take before he's back to his very best:


"It's difficult to say. I honestly feel like my game is in a good place. I'm confident. It all just comes down to match practice for me. If I get more matches under my belt, then I'm confident that I will reclaim my best form. Since lockdown was first put in place, competitive matches have been few and far between. That definitely knocked my confidence a little bit. But recently, I have begun to play more matches and I'm starting to get it all back. I don't think it will take that long for my best form to return now that I'm back playing more and more."


The upcoming World Championships is a significant one in the context of the sport's history and potentially a very lucrative one when considering the sport's future. For the first time in decades, the table tennis World Championships will not be taking place in either Europe or Asia; this year's event will be hosted by The United States. Liam was asked about the significance of this venue for such a big event in the sport:


"I think it's a big step. They are trying to help table tennis grow in The United States. There's a big market there so hopefully it'll be good. From what I've heard, the whole event has pretty much sold out now that spectators are allowed back. So yeah, I'm really hoping it's going to be a good spectacle. If the sport can grow in the US, then that can only be a good thing for table tennis."


Similarly to when I spoke to Liam ahead of the Olympic Games, he's keeping his cards close to his chest as to what will be a successful tournament for him. For the Derbyshire man, it's all about staying relaxed and taking it one match at a time:


"I don't really like to put pressure on myself and think I need to reach a certain stage before I think I've had a good tournament. I'll probably be seeded to reach the last 16 of the singles event. So the first aim is just to reach that stage and then if I do, will probably end up playing someone who's ranked higher than me. So from that point on, we'll just see how it goes. Every match is difficult. I just want to go into the event relaxed and with no pressure on me and just try and enjoy it. For me, that's how the results come."


What will be different from the Olympics, is that Pitchford will also be competing in the men's doubles event with Paul Drinkhall as well as competing in the singles. Liam explains why this can only be a good thing for his game as a whole:


"I'll be playing in the doubles as well as the singles in the World Championships. Playing both normally helps me. When that happens, I usually start my doubles matches before I start my singles games. That really helps me to get into the tournament. Paul and I have been playing really well in the doubles. We did well in Qatar, so it'll be interesting to see how we get on in the doubles event in the World Championships."


Like many sports, table tennis now has a bunched up calendar for next year because of how long the sport had to go into an enforced hiatus due to the pandemic. 2022 will certainly be a busy year for Pitchford and a home Commonwealth Games in the summer will certainly be one of the big attractions:


"From what I've heard, it's going to be pretty busy. They've started these new WTT events and I think there's going to be a lot of those put on next year. And then we have the Commonwealth Games next year in Birmingham. That will be the big thing on the agenda next year. I hope I'll be able to add to my medal collection in those Games."


Finally, one of the biggest changes since the Olympic Games is the long-awaited return of spectators at tournaments. It's an aspect of the sport that Liam is very glad to have returned and he sees it as a particular advantage when it comes to next year's Commonwealth Games which will be held in Birmingham:


"It'll be nice. Especially with the Commonwealth Games being in England too. I should have the crowd behind me, which will be really nice. The Tokyo Games was a weird one with there being no spectators at all. Just a completely different atmosphere. So yeah, I'm really looking forward to having table tennis fans back in watching."


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