Britain's teenage prodigies out to turn the tables on brilliant Chinese

Paul Drinkhall and Darius Knight are two 17-year-olds ready to take on the world – and that's not spin. By Alan Hubbard

Theo Walcott is by no means in a league of his own as a tasty teenage prodigy. If there was a SportingX Factor, Britain could put on a talent show of kids with star quality in a host of sports, from archery to taekwondo, as this series is demonstrating. But perhaps the most promising of all is the 17-year-old who last year was runner-up to the Arsenal footballer Walcott as the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year.

Paul Drinkhall's sport of table tennis may not have the highest of profiles, even though more than two million people play it in Britain. For most it evokes memories of a knock-up at Butlin's or Chairman Mao backhanding his inscrutable game of ping-pong diplomacy. But here is a self-assured young man determined to flick and spin his way to glory in 2012.

He has already won a singles gold medal at this year's Australian Youth Olympics, and added another in the doubles with his great friend and rival Darius Knight, also 17. Now there are real hopes that between them they will reignite the flames that flickered after table tennis had its heyday back in the Seventies.

Matthew Syed, the former Commonwealth champion and double Olympian, says of Drinkhall: "He is the best young player in Europe at the moment and among the best in the world, except for the Chinese. The key thing for him and for Darius is to develop over the next five years and challenge the Chinese in 2012. They are not good enough to win medals in Beijing, but nobody at their age is.

"Paul is very level-headed and unusually phlegmatic, quite laidback and with a good attitude to both victory and defeat. Without doubt he is the outstanding talent we've had since Desmond Douglas [Britain's most successful post-war player]. He has a huge amount of power and a very strong forehand topspin.

"I like Darius too. His is an inspirational story. He has matured and developed as a human being and is also very talented. Paul may just have the edge talent-wise but Darius beat him last time they played, so it is very tight. They are both ones to watch for 2012. A lot of hopes are pinned on them."

Drinkhall's progress can be measured by what Syed describes as "massive victories" recently over two world-class opponents, from Romania and Hong Kong, for his regular club TTV-Gonner in Germany's Bundesliga, and by having three match points as a 16-year-old last year against the current Olympic champion, Ryu Seung- Min of South Korea, beforelosing in seven sets.

His career began as an eight-year-old when his grandfather, a league player, took him and his elder brother Bryn – later an England international – to a local club in Ormesby, near Middlesbrough. "It all started from there really," he says. "I played football for my school but I became so keen on table tennis that I had to choose. I enjoyed it because it was so different from anything else, so many different tactics." A junior international at nine, Drinkhall first journeyed to China as an 11-year-old when he was invited to train at the world-renowned Shandong Table Tennis Centre.

"It was all pretty shocking – more like a prison. One of the lads who was with us came home after a week because he hated it so much. The food was terrible, nothing like our local takeaway. You spent the whole next day on the loo. Fortunately things have improved since. But if you want to be the best you have to work and practise with the best, and they happen to be in China."

So Britain has imported one of the top Chinese coaches, Liu Jia-Yi, of whom Drinkhall says: "If it wasn't for him, we would not have improved so much." Knight adds: "He pushes us pretty hard but he has to remember we are not Chinese. In China, if you get something wrong he could give you a slap. Obviously he can't do that here, but he commands enough respect for you to look up to him and listen."

Britain's youngest-ever seniorchampion and No 1, Drinkhall points out that in the world rankings he is still around 200th. "There's a long way to go, I've just got to keep improving. The European qualifying event for Beijing is in Germany next April. We have two places and I'll be very happy to qualify, hopefully with Darius." But he acknowledges that this would be a muscle-flexing exercise for London, "when I'll be 22 and just coming to my peak".

His Lottery funding and earnings in Germany keep him ticking over: "I have enough to live on and my parents helped me a lot in the early days". His father is a potash miner near the North-east coast.

Knight's story is rather more dramatic. For him, the sport provided a means of escape from the downward slide into criminality. His father, he says, was involved in drug dealing, and he admits that he could easily have been sucked into the south London guns and gangsta-rap culture. Two friends were killed this year, one stabbed, another shot.

Thankfully, Knight wandered into a youth club as an 11-year-old and met Gideon Ashison, a part-time librarian who coached table tennis and gave him free lessons every afternoon in a friend's garden shed. Now the national Under-21 champion, he turned out to be a natural. "Table tennis was the turning point. I had done one or two bad things growing up – nothing really serious – but when I look back now I think, 'Thank God'. Sport has changed me as a person."

He, too, plays overseas, for Montpellier in the French League. "It earns me a few thousand pounds but it's not about the money. But it means if I need a pair of trainers I can buy them. I don't have to nick 'em and I don't have to ask my mum for anything. Instead I've been able to give money back to her – and she knows it's clean money."

While both are appreciative of the funding that they receive, Drinkhall believes that more could be done to assist other young prospects. "There are some good young players in the country but it seems difficult to get funding, particularly for the girls. Sometimes I wonder if the system is the right way round.

"You've got to win matches before you get it, but how the hell are you supposed to win matches if you don't have the funding for the training? As we approach 2012, those in charge need to put a bit of risk into it and invest some money to try to get results. In table tennis there is a lot of young talent, and by the time they are 16 or 17 they are out of the sport because they have to get a job."

Drinkhall and Knight have moved to the new residential National Table Tennis Centre in Sheffield, where Drinkhall will defend his title in the European Junior Top 10 tournament from 25 to 27 January.

Theirs is a best-mates friendship but a Borg and McEnroe-like rivalry, though they make a perfect combination in the doubles, their contrasting styles complementing each other. Drinkhall is the stronger of the two, but the left-handed Knight is quicker.

They have played each other "about 40 or 50 times" but have never kept score, agreeingthat they are "probably about even Stevens".

Thanks to this dynamic duo there is every chance that 2012 will see the sport pinging its way back to the top table.

Desmond Douglas: Message from an icon

Paul has come within match point of the Olympic champion, Ryu Seung-Min from Korea, so you have to say he has a great chance at London 2012 of being among the medals if he can remain focused and stay injury-free over the next five years.

Paul and Darius Knight are two fantastic players and are able to lift their game when playing each other and help move the sport forwards in Britain. Paul has very quick hands and is a skilful player. He doesn't get angry when he loses points and keeps levelheaded and calm, which is a great attribute to have.

He knows what he wants to achieve and how he wants to play, and what I'd like to see him do is improve his concentration, because that is one area he sometimes lapses in.

I spoke to Paul last year and advised he should play more top-level international competitions and really get to know his opponents on the world scene, which I believe he has done.

Paul is at a great advantage in that Lottery funding has been invested in table tennis over the past few years and there is so much opportunity to train and compete, both at the High Performance Centres set up around Britain and also abroad.

I am currently involved in the sport at Under-12 level, attending training camps and helping develop skills. These youngsters have a lot of work to do and we are looking to develop them as players so they can reach a level where they can start challenging players like Paul and Darius as they get older.

Desmond Douglas is Britain's most successful table tennis player ever, winning seven Commonwealth titles

The class of 2006: Fran Halsall, swimmer

Reflecting on the past 12 months, I set myself very high expectations and although I had a consistent year, I didn't quite achieve what I wanted. My main event was the World Championships in Melbourne, where I just missed the final, finishing ninth, which was agonising. The event was spectacular, though, and the Aussies are such a passionate nation it made such a difference to the atmosphere.

Manchester is hosting the World Short Course Championships next year, which will have a similar atmosphere – it will be great to have an event on our own doorstep and I've got 80 friends and family coming to watch me on my birthday, when I'm competing.

There is going to be a temporary pool built in the MEN Arena, which will be awesome but surreal – I've watched Robbie Williams play, now I will be competing against the world's best swimmers in the same venue.

After the Worlds I was very fortunate that I was awarded further National Lottery funding, which has been a great help as I'm able to train full-time, compete, travel, buy kit and use the English Institute of Sport facilities.

The results were evident at the highlight of my year, the British Championships, where I took three nationaltitles and set two British records. One of those was in the 50m butterfly, an event I rarely swim, so that has given me encouragement and I have qualified to swim that, along with the freestyle sprint events, in Manchester next year.

Another major event was the international meet in Japan. On the way back we stopped via Beijing and saw the pool where the Olympics will be held next year. It looks like a fantastic facility and I got a real sense of excitement being there. The next six months is all aiming towards the Olympic qualifiers next March, which I am very much hoping to achieve.

The sport has had changes recently with the departure of the performance director, Bill Sweetenham, and Michael Scott coming in. I have the utmost respect for Bill, as he was always encouraging and motivational towards me, and it's sad to see him go. It's exciting, though, to have someone with fresh ideas coming in.

Timeline

December 2006: Fran Halsall finishes in fourth place inthe 50m freestyle at the European Short Course Championships in Helsinki and sixth in the100m freestyle.

March 2007: At the World Championships in Melbourne, Halsall finishes ninth and 11th in the 100m and 50m freestyle respectively and is involved in all three relay events, in which Britain finish fourth, fifth and eighth.

August 2007: At the British National Championships in Manchester, Halsall wins three titles – the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle and 50m butterfly – and sets new British records in the latter two events.

For more information about the game, visit: englishtabletennis.org.uk

Paul Drinkhall receives development funding through UK Sport, supported by the National Lottery. The 2007 UK School Games in Coventry were supported by the National Lottery through the Big Lottery Fund

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