Two Jewish table tennis stars showed off their ping pong skills over the weekend when Ashley Stokes and Eli Baraty took part at the World Championships at Alexandra Palace.
The pair, who have starred for GB at European Maccabi Games, are also football teammates – playing for MGBSFL Division Two side Catford & Bromley on a Sunday morning, though were at opposite ends when they faced each other in a live televised match – which Stokes won. That win over Baraty helped set Stokes on his way to the round of last-16, where he lost to the three-time world champion, Maxim Shmyrev.
Reflecting back on the tournament and what his aims were going into it, he said: “I had to approach the competition stage by stage and take one match at a time. I had previously said that getting to the quarter-finals would be a dream as then I would be invited back for next year’s event without having to qualify through the England qualifying events again.
“Looking back, I’m very proud of making the last 16 in the world championships, it sounds great! I had battled hard to make it through from Friday to Saturday and then played some of my best free-flowing ping pong in the last 32 against a former three-times quarter-finalist and Dutch number one Martin Groenewold.”
Although disappointed with the defeat, he did take valuable lessons from the loss. “I learnt that to be the champion of the world you need to have the whole package”, he said. “To be mentally and physically stronger, to be super positive and confident in your game. I improved so much since last year but Maxim was a huge step up in class. I spoke with him a lot and he has given me some tips which I will take into the training hall and hope to come back on his level next year!”
Played in the atmospheric Alexandra Palace in front of the Sky Sports cameras and an at times raucous crowd, he said: “I always loved playing In front of a crowd even if that was two or three people down the local club when I first started. I like to show off my skills, I always wanted the chance to show to the world what I’m capable of and I got that on Sunday.
“The crowd were really getting behind me singing my name and clapping every point, On top of that to perform and win in front of the home crowd in my home city, it’s the stuff of dreams. To play in front of that many people singing my name and millions watching at home make you feel super human – it’s an addictive feeling!”
Looking ahead to the future, both for him and the sport, he said: “I’m very interested in how the sport is going to grow, we will need to wait and hear what Barry Hearn has planned for the future. As long as Barry stays involved we are in good hands that’s for sure!
“Ideally I would get a sponsor, dedicate a full year to training and then go to the competition next year in the best shape ever trying to win it!”
Baraty went into the tournament with no aims, which wasn’t that much of a surprise as he wasn’t expecting to play in the tournament. He said: “I honestly had no aims and didn’t train for the event. I coach two players from the Harefield Academy where my table tennis programme is based and when I arrived I was called up by the organiser. From previous ranking and playing in this event, I was given a last chance qualification on the day, because there was one drop out. I had to beat an English and Polish player. So I played and managed to beat both players. The aim then became just about winning one game in the main event.”
Playing two pre-qualification matches having turned up at the venue straight from work, he then played three group matches, including the one against Stokes. “In the main event I lost two and won one which was special in itself”, he said. “I had a small chance against one of my good friends Ashley, leading in the final set of our epic match, but took my foot off the pedal. Looking back I’m just pleased to have had the opportunity of playing at such a special event for the third time.”
Speaking about the match against Ashley, he said: “He’s a good friend and we have been work colleagues and table tennis friends on and off the table. We have played each other many times and it’s very difficult for the both of us to fully preform due to all these factors. But on this occasion we both played very well and the rallies were of high level. I thoroughly enjoyed our match in fact I believe it’s the best match we’ve had and neither of us deserved to lose. Credit to Ashley for keeping his cool right at the end when it seemed to be heading towards me, coming out on-top. “
Enjoying playing in the arena, he said: “The event brings in around 3,000 spectators per day from around the world and this year we saw a big Chinese contingency which made it even more special. I’ve been fortunate to play in three of the last four world championships and every time the atmosphere and occasion is special. The lights, the music, the characters, TV and the fans make this event unique and a lifetime memory.”
And looking ahead himself, he said: “Many who saw me play said I could do so much better. I agree but unfortunately my main focus is on coaching players rather than myself. In fact out of the 64 players who came from across the globe, three including myself are based at my academy. The future of me playing will probably be the same as this year, it’s likely I’ll play the qualification event and if I go through then great of not I’m sure I’ll have some of my players at the event which I will be coaching.
“The beauty of it all is that I managed to be a part of the best 64 players in the world without training and it leaves me knowing that if I did have time to train, I could achieve so much more.
Sometimes the unknown is just as nice as the actual outcome.”