The problem was that I wasn't getting selected to play for England. Younger players than me were getting selected regularly, and there was a lot of talk suggesting that the administration was against my style of play, which is defensive. I began to think that I would never have a chance to play for the full England team.
I became extremely demoralised, and I think my father was too. Eventually I told him that I would go ahead and apply for a university place. He filled out the forms, and put Oxford at the top of the list, which surprised me, because my academic credentials weren't all that impressive. But I thought that if I made it into Oxford, that would give me the incentive to go through with a full university course.
I came back to England for the interview, and I loved the college that I had applied to. I made it into Oxford on condition that I passed my A-levels, but in the back of my mind I still wanted to carry on with table tennis. I felt that I was good enough to play for England, and I wanted to combine studying and playing.
But then I got a letter from the national coach, Donald Parker, saying that he felt a full-time university degree was not compatible with playing top-class sport, and that therefore it was not likely that I would be selected to play for England if I studied at university.
I understood his viewpoint: table tennis is a professional sport, and I had to assume that getting a degree at Oxford would be a pretty demanding business. I was at a very low ebb. I had pretty much decided that table tennis was all over for me, and I was very demoralised. I thought of all the years I had played the game, from primary school through the junior years and cadet teams - and now it seemed that my England career was over before it had really begun.
Then, in February 1991, I went to play in the Czechoslovak Open. The tournament was packed with good players, and I must have been a 500-1 outsider - only two English players had won international tournaments since the 1950s. The night before I flew out I told a friend that I didn't think it was worth my while going. I had no chance of being selected to play for England in the world championships, which were being held in Japan, and it all seemed pointless. But I went. And I won the tournament, which sent shockwaves throughout European table tennis. I was more amazed than anyone else. Even today it remains my biggest achievement in the game.
The selectors had to pick me for the world championships then, and I duly flew to Chiba in April. I had a reasonable time there, and once I started at university I found that I was getting picked regularly for England. Since then, my game has gone up and up: it seems that I could combine the two after all. This year, my final year at Oxford, I became the English No 1 and got a First. It all worked out in the end.Reuse content