England Land in the Limelight on their Road to Group Domination

By Matt Hetherington | April 30, 2018, 5:57 p.m. (ET)

While the Swedish team dazzle fans with emotional celebrations and stunning performances on home ground, it was England who stole the scene today at the 2018 Leibherr World Team Table Tennis Championships in Halmstad. England are emerging, a team which two years ago surprised the world by reaching the World Team Championship semifinal and have been on the rise ever since.

Two years ago England faced Japan in a historical moment, it had been decades since they found themselves in the semifinals of a World Team Championships. Alas it was not to be, but England were far from discouraged. Since that day the team have made countless impressive results, Drinkhall wowing audiences on the World Tour, Pitchford capturing exceptional results and Sam Walker solidifying his position in the team. The trio were coming into the limelight in the world of international table tennis and England was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

Fast forward to 2018 and they delighted audiences in London in front of a home crowd at the 2018 World Team Cup as they won bronze at the Copperbox Arena before heading to the Gold Coast and stealing the show in the Men's Doubles event where they won gold, along with a handful of other medals.

In Halmstad though they have been exceeding expectations yet again. On day 1 they accounted for Belarus, Pitchford stepping up to defeat the high caliber experience of international veteran Vladimir Samsonov. A good 3-0 start to their tournament.

This morning they landed their first upset, taking out Chinese Taipei in 4 matches. Drinkhall led the way in a 5 set spectacle over one of Asia's most consistently high performing players - Chuang Chih-Yuan. Liam Pitchford fought his way past Chen Chien-An to give England a 2-0 lead. The young talent of Lin Yun-Ju proved too much for Sam Walker in the third match, but Pitchford was waiting in the wings and tore through Chuang in an outstanding straight games match. England were victorious. Next up - Japan.

A chance on the very same stage to exact revenge on the team that had halted their run in Malaysia just 2 years earlier, England would face one of the world's premier teams. 

Drinkhall started strong against Jun Mizutani, but the left hander seemed unphased by the 2-1 deficit he faced. Like 2 years beforehand when he had faced a 10-6 and 2-1 hole against Pitchford to dig out of, Mizutani raced back and blocked England in their tracks. 

What came next was more than enough to knock Japan onto their back foot and sow seeds of doubt in their minds. Liam Pitchford decimated Japan's wonderkid Tomokazu Harimoto in straight games. The 11-5, 11-5, 11-3 result was decisive and bold.

As incredible as the result may have seemed, nothing prepared Japan for what was to follow.

In three close games, Sam Walker dismantled Koki Niwa. The consistent, creative and classy Koki had shown himself to be a reliable force for Japan in many international encounters, including against England earlier in the year where he comfortably beat Liam Pitchford. Walker summoned some of his best table tennis and rode the wave to hand England a 2-1 lead.

An exciting situation arose as once again Liam Pitchford faced Jun Mizutani. Would his past result haunt him, or could he break through, not just for himself but for an inspirational win for England?

Pitchford was a man in form, fluent backhand power and well executed tight plays had him in good standing, but Mizutani fought hard. England would no doubt be rushing with adrenaline as Pitchford gained himself a 2-1 lead in the match, but - like last time - a full 5 games would be required.

As the end loomed it was the England player who powered home. Dropping his racket to the floor as the magnitude of the result poured over him it was a moment of satisfaction for Liam Pitchford.

"It feels really good. I would have preferred to do it in the semifinal last time, but revenge feels great. I was a bit nervous at the end, but I thought I played brave when I needed to and rode my luck" - England's Liam Pitchford.

No doubt a result the team will be thrilled with, they now assert themselves as the team to beat in Group C, having overcome the top 2 seeds. Belgium and Singapore still remain and the team are careful and wise to note that they could defeat or be defeated by any of the teams in the group.

"It was a great team performance, we all played some of our best table tennis at times! I thought I played a great match tactically against Koki and managed to get the win! Now we've got to move onto the next matches in the group and try and finish the job of getting the top spot in the groups!" - England's Sam Walker. 

Today they brought their best, what will tomorrow hold for England?

Follow the action LIVE on ITTV and check out the match videos below:
- Paul Drinkhall vs. Jun Mizutani
- Liam Pitchford vs. Tomokazu Harimoto
- Sam Walker vs. Koki Niwa
- Liam Pitchford vs. Jun Mizutani