Ashley Stokes struck gold to win the Men's Singles competition at the Maccabi GB Table Tennis Championships in Willesden.
Spectators were treated to some excellent performances from some of the biggest names in Jewish Table Tennis at the Capital City Academy in an event that attracted a record field. This was combined with the glimmer of former champions still making the tables sparkle, whilst the younger players paved meteoric tracks on their way to table tennis stardom.
To start, in the coveted Men’s Singles category all the seeded players got through their groups, and a few others besides. There were some unusual results in part at this stage but seeing that the top two winners from each group went through to the knockout stage there were ultimately no surprise visitors to the first round proper.
A number of the top seeds are currently, or have at some time been, ranked inside the top 100 on the official England Men’s Ranking List so we expected to see some good games here.
So onto the Knock-Out stage and on table 1 the top seed and last year’s winner of this event, Eli Baraty, faced a very much improved Leslie Samuels. Baraty, who is still on the mend from a life threatening illness, seemed to be struggling. Maybe his late entry to this year’s event due to his uncertainty on fitness was a mistake. There could be no excuses though because Samuels played well winning the first game.
This prompted Baraty to re-think his tactics winning a close second game. The third also went his way by a big margin and come the fourth game Baraty secured a win, but only just.
On another table the young powerhouse and former top 10 England Junior Guy Ben-Aroya beat the up-and-coming Junior, Jack Josephs, but not before dropping the first set to Josephs. A disappointed Josephs was now out of the Men’s event, but he was to be victorious elsewhere.
Last year's runner-up, the fifth seeded Keith Lesser, now faced Matt Spero who was seeded a place below him. However, in a reversal of last year’s result when Lesser beat Spero, this time Spero beat his Essex compatriot taking him through to the next round and, in the process, making Spero the first seed to beat a higher-ranked player.
Maccabi table tennis stalwart Dov Katz’s game was underway on another table. Katz, who has shown a life long passion and dedication to Jewish table tennis and is so well-known that you would think that he has been around for a millennia. However, in truth, Katz is still only in his thirties and playing as well as ever. Nevertheless he had a fight on his hands from the hungry junior, Sasha Somers, who was eager to make a name for himself if only he could beat the legend.
This game went the distance and most sets went close but the experienced Katz came through leaving Somers having to wait for another opportunity against him some day in the future.
Meanwhile, Leeds player Yoni Caspi beat the venerable John Tendler three sets straight, thus setting him up for a next round meeting with Ashley Stokes who had a bye from his furst round draw.
While this was going on, the talented no. 7 seed Rafi Marom was playing the ninth seed and Veteran no. 1 seed, Jeremy Banks. Banks who has had some fantastic results this year and has that magic ability to get all manner of hard hit balls safely back on the table. But was this going to be any good against the abilities of Marom? Not on this occasion it wasn’t. Despite the fact that Banks took a set off Marom he couldn’t quite find the ‘X-Factor’ and although this was not a foregone conclusion Banks nevertheless ended up losing to Marom in an exciting four-setter.
Lastly, second seed and previous winner of this event, Adam Laws, played another Leeds contestant, Richard Abrahams. Abrahams is a very capable player was up for the challenge. However, Laws, who was recently ranked as high as 30 in England, was surely going to be a challenge for anyone. This was the case as Laws beat Abrahams three games straight, although Abrahams must surely be pleased that he took Laws the distance in one of those sets.
The quarter-finals saw Baraty facing Ben-Aroya. Ben-Aroya is Baraty’s prodigy, having been coached by him since a toddler, and he has never beaten Baraty. But all that was about to change as Ban-Aroya powered himself to a very worthy 3-1 victory leaving Baraty disappointed but pleased for his former pupil and happy under the circumstances just to be there to play.
Next up was Spero against Katz. Spero took the first game and threatened Katz’s immaculate record. Ever the fighter, Katz came back with aplomb beating Spero in the next three games. Spero always looked like he should get further but yet again he crashed out in the last eight leaving Katz to fight it out in the next round.
Now for the game of Stokes versus Caspi. Up to this point Stokes hadn’t really been tested, but Caspi threatened to change that. However, it wasn’t to be a happy ending for Caspi as Stokes ran away the victor in three straight sets in a fairly one-sided affair.
The last tie was a thrilling contest as hard hit spins shots were being fired at all directions, interspersed by delightful deft shots that had the crowd spellbound. It was close but eventually the higher ranked beat Marom to the finishing post. One day, Marom will get to the final but, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be this time.
Ben-Aroya lined up to take on Katz in the semis. Katz had been here before but not Ben-Aroya so could the former still keep his belief or would he let the 'Legend' get the better of him? Katz lost the first set 12-10. Then, over the next two games, there were some tremendous rallies with Katz showing some vintage performances. However, in the end, Ben-Aroya kept up his concentration and his relentless power play to win 3-0 and Katz was left shell-shocked but still able to applaud the young pretender.
In the second semi, crowd pleasers Laws and Stokes went head to head. The play was of the highest quality which is what you would expect from two players who have been so highly ranked in England. The rallies were long and exciting and the games were being shared equally leaving them to fight it out in the deciding 5th game. This started off well for Laws, but a series of missed serves let Stokes back into the game and Stokes, sensing a bit of nervousness on Laws’ behalf, went for the kill. He took the fifth and final game to get him into his fourth Men’s final.
An expectant crowd now gathered for the showpiece match - Stokes against Ben-Aroya. A very good game unravelled, with some fantastic crowd-pleasing rallies but not many of the winning points were going Ben-Aroya’s way. Maybe at last the moment was too much for Ben-Aroya or maybe Stokes was just too good. Whatever the reasons, Stokes was the ultimate victor and in doing so won this title for a record-breaking fourth time. He left Ben-Aroya reflecting on what a great tournament he had been involved in. He certainly seemed as happy with his silver medal as Stokes was with his fourth gold.
Maccabi GB Table Tennis chair Mel Davidson said: "This year’s championships went exceptionally smoothly. This was in part due to employing expert help using computerised scheduling.
"We had an absolute bumper entry making this the biggest event I have been involved with over the last 10 years.
Many categories were at their maximum level. We had a particularly mammoth response from the junior players with a fantastic entry from all categories including the under-12 and under-15 events.
"Overall we must have had more than 250 people passing through the hall during the course of the day and we had high praise from many on how much they enjoyed the whole experience.
"Of course, this year is the Maccabiah Games in Israel and all our team players did well today. This must surely be good news for our chances of a medal out there.
"Table tennis is again on the ascendancy with many youngsters showing an interest in the game and this has been demonstrated by the sheer numbers who entered. This event is the culmination of very hard work over many months but I couldn’t do it without the help of a team of dedicated personnel."