Will Bayley believes he has emerged stronger from his pre-Tokyo injury nightmare after booking his place at his fifth Paralympic Games at the English Institute of Sport on Thursday night.
The 35-year-old, who won a silver medal in the Japanese capital less than a year after ripping his ACL in a freak accident during filming for the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, beat the Netherlands’ Jean-Paul Montanus to win his first European para-table tennis title since 2011.
After clinching a tight 11-9, 7-11, 12-10, 11-9 win that also punched his ticket to Paris, Bayley celebrated by kicking over the court-side hoardings to embrace his supporters, emulating his raucous celebrations in Rio in 2016 when he marked his first Paralympic gold by leaping onto the table.
Having safely extended an unbeaten run that stretches back to the Tokyo final which he lost to China’s Yan Shuo, Bayley told the PA news agency: “I’m feeling emotional because it means a lot to me. Winning the European title again after all these years shows I’ve still got the hunger and desire.
“I’m at the peak of my powers and I’m the best player in the world, and I can’t wait to prove it (in Paris). I want Yan Shuo. I know I’m better than him. Whoever I play, I know I will beat them.
“It (the accident) is why I’m playing with more guts and determination. I’m better under pressure.
“I’m getting older and more mature. I had a year out after my injury and I worked really hard.
“Things happen for a reason and I believe I have come out of it a much better player.”
Bayley’s victory added to the world title he already holds, and Great Britain’s long-serving para-table tennis performance director Gorazd Vecko expressed his belief that the Tunbridge Wells player can continue to reign for at least one more Paralympic cycle.
“Will knows he can still improve in lots of areas and he is still motivated to do so,” said Vecko.
“In the last two years he has made an unbelievable improvement mentally.
“Will is still the poster boy for GB para-table tennis and I think he will also be in LA.
“I think by the time he finishes he will be one of the greatest Paralympic table tennis players in the world. It is up to us to help him achieve what he wants to achieve.”