Britons survive Swedish scare at the top table

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The Independent Online

The Swedes should have been putty in the hands of Britain's top-seeded wheelchair table tennis team but, as James Rawson and Neil Robinson know only too well, no one can be discounted when you play at this level.

The Swedes should have been putty in the hands of Britain's top-seeded wheelchair table tennis team but, as James Rawson and Neil Robinson know only too well, no one can be discounted when you play at this level.

The duo dispatched their first-round Paralympic opponents 3-1 here yesterday, but never quite gave the impression that they were in control of the match.

The Britons blamed first-day nerves and a good performance in the doubles by the two Swedes, Joergen Johansen and Oerjan Kylevik. "They played very well, and we just didn't play as well as we can," said Rawson, a 35-year-old from Totton, Nottinghamshire.

"They're ranked much lower than us, but they're a very good pairing and they can sneak wins against the better players."

When the chemistry works between Rawson and Robinson, great things can happen. Robinson, 42, from Bridgend, South Wales, says they are "to some degree telepathic". The pair claimed the European team title after narrowly beating France, who are regarded as demi-gods in the event, in Slovakia in July last year. If all goes well in Sydney, Britain will meet France in the final, an encounter that has all the makings of a grudge match.

Yesterday both men chalked up comfortable wins in their singles games at the State Sports Centre, Rawson defeating Johansen 21-15, 21-14 and Robinson beating Kylevik 21-8, 21-14.

It was in the doubles that things began to go awry. The men lost their first match 21-9, then rallied to take the second 21-8. Behind in the third, they fought back bravely to narrow the lead to one point but were beaten 21-19. A nervous Robinson had to return to the table to take on Johansen, but the Briton found his form and, fanning himself periodically with his bat between points, won 21-12, 21-17.

The two men are both fourth-time Paralympians. Both have been paraplegic since car accidents in their youth. Rawson, a local authority payroll clerk, started playing table tennis after he left school while Robinson, a local government finance officer, became hooked on it in a spinal injuries rehabilitation unit.

"I was always very keen on sport before my accident," Robinson said. "I played football and rugby at school, and also did surfing. I'm a very competitive person, and once I realised that there was an outlet for me in terms of sport, I saw no reason why I shouldn't be as competitive in whatever sport I chose."

Both Robinson, who is ranked world No 2 behind a Frenchman, Jean Philippe Robin, and Rawson, ranked No 5, will compete in the singles tournament, which begins next week. They are hoping to avoid a repetition of Atlanta, where they met in the singles semi-finals. Robinson prevailed and went on to win a gold medal, while Rawson took a bronze.

In the team event, the pair were gold medallists in Barcelona but had to content themselves with bronze in Atlanta in 1996.

National Lottery funding may make a difference this time. It has enabled Dave Matthews, the table tennis team manager, to take on Andrew Eden, a former Commonwealth able-bodied champion who provides one-to-one coaching and is in Sydney with the team.

If Britain defeat Italy today, they will be given a bye into the semi-finals. Matthews is upbeat about their gold medal prospects. "If they play as well as I know they can, they've got every chance," he said.

However, he warned: "When you get to this standard, there are no easy games. People have to kick and fight and gouge to get here. Thankfully there is now a performance culture in disabled sport."

British hopes of a gold medal on the first day were dashed when the reigning air rifle standing champion, Deanne Coates, could only manage bronze.

Coates, who is retiring from the sport after these Games, was hoping to go out with a fourth gold after success in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta but was always behind as Korea's Im-Youn Kim landed the spoils with a world record score of 497.1 points.

The cyclist Nigel Capewell had hoped to emulate Olympian Jason Queally by landing an opening-day gold but had to settle for fourth place in the mixed 1km time trial LC1 classification at the Dunc Gray Velodrome.

Capewell led at one stage with a time of 1min 12.078sec but strong rides from the last three competitors saw him finish out of the medals.