India’s Bhavinaben Patel won silver in the women’s singles Class 4 category after losing 7-11, 5-11, 6-11 in 19 minutes in the final to top seed Zhou Ying of China. This is India’s first medal at the Tokyo Paralympics. Bhavinaben is the first Indian table tennis player to medal at the Paralympics. She’s also just the second Indian woman after Deepa Malik (silver in shot put in 2016) to medal at the Paralympics.
Bhavinaben had entered the gold medal match after beating Rio Olympics silver medalist Zhang Miao of China 7-11, 11-7, 11-4, 9-11, 11-8 in 34 minutes in the semifinal on Saturday.
Bhavinaben’s only two losses at these Games have come against the world no. 1. She had defeated the world no. 9, 8, 3 and 2 on her way to the final.
“I’m extremely delighted to win a medal but also a bit disappointed as well. I got a bit nervous,” Bhavinaben told the International Paralympic Committee. “I can only assure you that next time I meet her you will see a different me. She clearly got the better of me and had all the shots in her book to outsmart my effort. However, this medal will go a long way. I want to tell all the ladies out there trying to break away the stereotypes to believe in themselves and just go for it,” she said.
This is now Zhou’s third singles gold medal at the Paralympics and sixth medal overall. She has also won five golds and one silver at the World Championships over the course of her career. Earlier in the week, Bhavinaben had lost her first group stage match to Zhou, whose five previous Paralympic medals include gold medals in singles at the 2008 Beijing Games and at the 2012 London Paralympics.
Zhou had been in impressive form all week, dropping only game in her four previous matches before the final. She maintained that form from the outset in the final as the impressive depth in her shots troubled Bhavinaben frequently.
Zhou capitalised on any short returns from Bhavinaben with her powerful forehand, which she used with utmost precision.
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Bhavinaben hoped her success will help change the perception of people towards disability and create more opportunities.
“What I went through growing up, I don’t want the next generation of people with disability to suffer,” she said.
“Accessibility is a major issue and so is jobs and other opportunities. If my medal can somehow make the right noise and get people at the helm of affairs to be heard, I will be more than happy.
“I know it would happen as millions were praying for me back home, thanks for all their support.”
In the semifinal on Saturday, the first game was won by Zhang in just five minutes. In the second, Bhavinaben won by the exact same score and took the same amount of time. The scores were level until 6-6 before the Indian won a couple of points to go ahead 8-6; from there she held on to the lead to take the game and level the match. The third game was a one-sided affair, Bhavinaben needing just four minutes to take it 11-4. The fourth game was a much more competitive one, with neither player able to run away with a lead. From 9-9, however, Zhang won a couple of points to take the game and level the match.
Bhavinaben had a great start to the fifth game, winning the first five points before Zhang finally got on the scoreboard. The Indian held on to the lead and pulled away for 8-3 before Zhang mounted a comeback. The Chinese woman began to take a little more time between points and won five of the next six points to close the gap down to 8-9. Bhavinaben then took a timeout, after which she won two straight points to seal the game and the match, her first victory over Zhang in 12 attempts.
On Friday, Bhavaniben became the first Indian table tennis player to secure a medal at the Paralympics after defeating the defending champion Borislava Perić-Ranković of Serbia 11-5, 11-6, 11-7 in the quarterfinals. In the earlier round on Friday, Bhavaniben, 34, had defeated Joyce de Oliveira of Brazil 12-10, 13-11, 11-6.
Perić-Ranković, a veteran of four Olympics, had won gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, and silver medals at the 2008 and 2012 Games. Bhavinaben needed only 18 minutes to seal the win in the quarterfinal.
Earlier, Bhavinaben came back from behind in each game of her pre-quarterfinal match. From 9-10 down, she saved a game point en route to winning 12-10. In the second game, the Indian saved three game points down 7-10 before winning two straight points to take the game. In the third game, Bhavinaben came back from 0-3 down, winning seven straight points before sealing the game and the match.
Athletes in Class 4 category have fair sitting balance and fully functional arms and hands. Their impairment may be due to a lower spinal-cord lesion or cerebral palsy. In para table tennis, classes 1-5 are for wheelchair athletes, classes 6-10 are for standing athletes and class 11 is for athletes with intellectual impairments. Within wheelchair and standing class, the lower the number, the greater is the impact the impairment has on an athlete’s ability to compete.
Bhavinaben’s impairment was due to having contracted polio when she was just one. When pursuing an industrial training course with the Blind People’s Association in Ahmedabad, she picked up table tennis for fun. She won silver in the women’s doubles TT3-5 category at the 2018 Asian Para Games with Sonalben Patel, whose campaign in Tokyo came to an end on Thursday. Bhavinaben is currently ranked 12th in her division.