Table tennis duo aiming to serve up success at Gold Coast

Maria Tsaptsinos
Maria Tsaptsinos  in action (Credit: Alex Wilkinson, University of Nottingham)

Two of the rising stars of Table Tennis England hope to put rivals in a spin at the Commonwealth Games. TASS caught up with two student athletes serving up a healthy mix of sport and education.

Denise Payet can’t quite pinpoint the exact day. But the 16-year-old recalls the moment vividly. “My brother’s four years older than me,” she explained. “I can’t remember how old I was when I beat him at table tennis for the first time.

“But what I do remember is that when that happened he quit the sport there and then and decided to be a swimmer!

“He’s at university now and so we don’t see each other too often. But when we do he never seems to want to play table tennis!”

Payet’s brother was simply the first in a long line of dispirited table tennis players forced to reassess their future when faced with the bright new hope of English table tennis.

And he won’t be the last.

Payet’s remarkably swift rise from relative unknown to senior international reached its latest staging point in January when the teenage sensation was named in England’s squad to contest the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

She will jet out to Australia’s Gold Coast this month hot on the heels of a weekend working with her mew team mates at Table Tennis’s World Cup event at London’s Copper Box Arena.

And the adrenaline is already pumping where the Enfield-born star is concerned.

“I was called into the England senior team for a qualifying match against Spain last year but the World Cup event at the Copperbox was my first opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with my team-mates in a competition environment,” she added.

“I haven’t spent that much time with the senior players in the past so it was a chance to bond with the group before we travel to the Commonwealth Games.

“It’s an exciting few weeks. We’re heading to Japan for a warm-up event before the Commonwealths and I’ve always wanted to go there. My call-up was an unexpected bonus but now that I’m in the squad I’m determined to do my very best in the next few weeks.”

Payet joined Maria Tsaptsinos in Marcus Gustafson’s senior squad for the World Cup clash but a talent for rapid-fire table tennis skills isn’t the only thing two of the nation’s most exciting rising stars have in common.

Both are supported by TASS and benefit from access to a wealth of professionals as they seek to juggle elite sport with a full-time education.

Tsaptsinos – who partnered veteran (and TASS alumna) Kelly Sibley against Hong Kong and Singapore at the Copper Box last month – is studying Geography at the University Of Nottingham.

And the 20-year-old said: “Looking back I used to think it was a breeze combining my school work with my table tennis but of course it wasn’t.

“It’s incredibly tough to combine both – especially when you’re growing up so fast. I always wanted to carry on in full-time education and I’m the sort of person who needs something else to focus on apart from my sport.

“It actually helps to keep my head clear and the combination of table tennis and my degree course keeps both sides of my brain balanced. I learn a lot from table tennis that I can transfer to my geography degree and vice versa.

“TASS has shown me that it is possible to do both – and do well in both.”

Tsaptsinos is one of more than 400 TASS-supported athletes across England in full-time education and access to key services and advice is right on her doorstep.

“For me the physio support I receive as a TASS supported athlete has been absolutely essential,” she added. “And I’m very lucky that the TASS delivery site at Nottingham is right next door to where I’m based most of the time. The access is fantastic.

“Table tennis is such a repetitive sport that you’re bound to get strains and pulls and physiotherapy isn’t cheap. I’ve been fortunate to avoid any serious injuries so far but without the physio and S&C support that I can access on a daily basis I wouldn’t be where I am now.

“The S&C work I’ve done during the last two years has transformed my performances. It’s been invaluable.”

Payet is new to the TASS programme as she negotiates her way through a part-time BTEC course at the same time as attending regular training camps in Nottingham.

But the ambitious teenager can already see the value in staying in full-time education and has set her sights on gaining a place at the University of Nottingham within the next two years.

“Everything I’ve seen so far from the TASS programme is fantastic,” she added. “I’ve only had time to access a fraction of the services available to me at the Nottingham University Delivery Site but I’m determined to make the most of what’s on offer.

“There’s a real sense that athletes are encouraged to combine sport with education and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m very interested in science and at the moment my aim is to find a degree course at Nottingham in a couple of years’ time.”

Right now there’s plenty for Payet and Tsaptsinos to occupy their time with – at the table and in the classroom. It’s a challenge both athletes have tackled head on but there’s no denying the fact that the Commonwealth Games has presented a huge – and hugely welcome – distraction.

“I’m very excited about going to the Gold Coast,” added Tsaptsinos. “It’s my first Commonwealth Games and I’m not just going for a holiday – I’m going out there to perform to the very best of my abilities.

“We’re working towards a team medal and that’s what the World Cup event at the Copperbox was all about. It gave us an opportunity to work together and try some new things. There are three of us in the team and we’re all focused and raring to go.

“I had my best result earlier this year at the Hungarian Open when I beat the 12th ranked Under 21 player in the world – put in context I’m ranked around 150. I feel as if I’m heading into the Commonwealths in the form of my life.”

Maria Tsaptsinos & Denise Payet
Denise Payet and Maria Tsaptsinos (Credit: Table Tennis England)