On Saturday, 10th February at the Sporting Club in Cramlington, the Northumberland Table Tennis Association once against hosts its annual Closed Tournament for players who have participated in the league. The Tournament, organised by league Chairman Gareth Pearson and his team, consists of a number of events including Open, Womens, Veterans and Handicap singles.
The biggest entry is for the Open Singles in which nine groups of players will battle it out to win the biggest and most prestigious trophy. The top seed in this is last year’s winner, Andrew Wilkinson. Cramlington Casuals’ star player has lost just one match this season, against Chun Yin Yu of NECA A, but the Chinese University student failed to get his entry in by the deadline despite being given a second opportunity to do so. Spectators are now wondering whether this is a lack of organisational skills, or the fear of facing Wilkinson in a tournament environment where Yu has never prevailed over the number one seed. The second seed is last year’s Open Singles runner up Graeme Barella who lost 3-0 to Wilkinson in the final. Mount A’s Barella has lost two matches this season, one also to Chun Yin Yu, and an unexpected defeat against NESLC’s Richard Wilson. When on form and in the right mindset, Barella can beat any player in the league and has proven this with a solid track record against top seed Wilkinson. Coupled with a thirst for revenge, a final between the top seeds could be brilliant viewing.
The players who will be looking to break into this match-up are third, fourth and fifth seeds Eddie Smith, Jim Stamas and Steve Penman. NESLC’s Eddie Smith was one of Northumberland’s greatest players but a lack of playing time has hindered recent successes and he hasn’t won the Open Singles since season 2010/11. A fantastic touch player and blocker, Smith always has the ability to cause upsets and if he can find some consistency he may be able to make his way to the final. Also of NESLC, Jim Stamas is a renowned, tenacious fighter who gives opponents no free shots. He’ll be there or thereabouts but his record against Northumberland’s top players Wilkinson, Barella and Yu isn’t good, having lost to all three already this season. Wilkinson’s teammate Steve Penman, the fifth seed, is an entirely unknown quantity. Penman can range from making absentee top player Dave Robson look decidedly average to losing against players from teams which get relegated from the Premier division. He’ll invariably get a decent win, but whether or not he can put the required string of wins together to get to the final is a question that hasn’t yet been properly answered in the forty years he has graced the local table tennis scene.
Other players that could get to the semi-finals include veteran classic defender Jimmy Scope as well as NESLC’s recently-returned Martin Shapira and Paul Baines. Rank outsiders Jamie Lupton, Jamie Dent and Dan Dodds likely won’t be able to reach the finals but will certainly give top players close games and could bag a few surprise wins.
The turnout for the Womens Singles isn’t good this year and just three entrants will compete for the coveted Philomena Clark Memorial trophy. Lynsey Storey, Linda Pinkham and Lynne Herrington have been stalwarts of the competition for a number of years and have played many matches against each other. Last year’s winner was Herrington, who is currently the highest-rated player of the three and is currently playing in Northumberland’s Division 1 for the Old England Jacks. Storey has been playing for the County team this season though and may have picked up some invaluable lessons there. Coupled with her persistent desire to compete and to win, there’s no doubt that she’ll prove a stern contest for Herrington and Pinkham.
The Veteran’s Singles this year sees its toughest level of competition for a number of years as Andrew Wilkinson is now eligible to compete in veterans’ competitions and has been doing so recently at a national level, including winning an O40s title in recent months. In addition, Martin Shapira has returned to the game after decades out but is already finding his feet and quickly gaining form. The top seeds are identical to those in the Open Singles with the exclusion of Graeme Barella who is a significant number of years away from being eligible to play in this category. It could be a fun final to watch if Wilkinson plays Smith, but Shapira won’t be far away if he maintains consistency.
The Handicap Singles event is hugely popular every year as it gives every player the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. More able players will have lower handicaps meaning they will give a number of points as head-starts against weaker opponents. The Handicap Singles use the old table tennis rules, up to 21 points and best of 3 ends.
This year the league’s best players haven’t signed up for the Handicap, presumably to ensure they’re fit for the events they see as important such as the Open Singles or Veterans Singles. The highest rated player in this year’s event is Brandon’s Jamie Lupton who has a handicap of 27, with Mount’s Jamie Dent at 28 and Dan Dodds at 30. Often it’s the higher handicap players who fare well in these events, especially players who have made rapid recent improvement that hasn’t been taken into account by the handicap system. Cramlington’s Daniel McManus is such a player, with a handicap of 53 yet also possessing the ability to spin the ball on both sides and serve well. Cricket and tennis-loving Sreerag Kanakala will also stand a good chance with a handicap of 50 if he can keep his erratic nature under control in tighter games. Aubrey Drapkin and Adrian Barnes, both with the maximum handicap of 60, are capable players on their day, and could cause upsets if they’re able to sustain a run of form.
Band 1 consists of four experienced Premier players in Paul Baines, Dale Aitkenhead, Steve Penman and Jimmy Scope, plus two of the league’s best up-and-coming players in Jamie Dent and Jamie Lupton. This is an event that Penman will be keen to win as he held the title for 2 years until Peter Smallcombe, who is unavailable due to other table tennis commitments this weekend, beat him in the final last year.
It will be similarly tight in Band 2 as Dan Dodds, Mohinder Rawat, Rod Roberts, Rob Reed, Dave Cutler and Lynne Herrington battle it out. Dodds and Reed are the top seeds but everyone is capable of beating everyone in this band which should lead to an unpredictable but enjoyable spectacle.
Band 3 is made up half of Matfen players and half Cramlington with the latter’s Lynsey Storey, Blair Carmichael and Adam Hardiman all competing in Division 2 and the former’s Nigel Tree, John Henderson and Dave Swan all competing in Division 3. University compatriots Carmichael and Hardiman will likely be facing off for the title, and that would be a great match to watch – but don’t rule out Tree or Henderson as they’re both very capable players.
Band 4 is a mixed bag with Cramlington’s Sreeraag Kanakula, Phil Smith, Daniel McManus, Richard Williamson and Mike Dunn outnumbering Old England’s Nigel Coe. Mike Dunn has played at the highest level out of these players and if he plays well, it’s likely he’ll reach the final. Smith, Williamson and McManus all have a chance to get there too though, and it’s likely that this band will be decided by the smallest of margins.
The lowest band, Band 5, is made up by Linda Pinkham, Paul Lupton, Audrey Drapkin, Alan Hedley, Joe Hastings and Adrian Barnes. Hedley has previously played at Division 2 level but finds himself struggling in Division 3 this season. Paul Lupton is a consistently strong player who will want to make a push for the title but Cramlington’s Joe Hastings could be a surprise candidate if he manages to get his mindset focused.
Andrew Wilkinson receives the Alan Morpeth Memorial Cup from Gareth Pearson, after winning last year’s open singles title