British table tennis star Will Bayley defiantly insisted he is still the best class seven player on the planet after agonisingly being stripped of his Paralympic title in Tokyo.
The 33-year-old failed to complete a fairytale recovery from a serious knee injury suffered rehearsing for Strictly Come Dancing in late 2019 as China’s Yan Shuo snatched gold with a 3-1 win.
Kent-born Bayley, who would almost certainly have missed the Games had they not be rescheduled, was his usual boisterous self during Sunday’s tense final but unable to capitalise on an early lead before being forced to settle for silver.
Five years on from deliriously leaping on the table after glory in Rio, he graciously congratulated world champion Yan on taking his crown as a whirlwind ride came to a relatively subdued end.
Bayley conceded that his opponent – an single-leg amputee who performs with the aid of a crutch – had been the better player on the day while attributing the painful loss to a key point in the second game.
“It’s been a tough couple of years and tearing my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) at the time, I wasn’t ever guaranteed to make it back at this level so I’m proud of making the final,” he said.
“I’m the best player in the world, I know I am but you have to prove it on the court and if you don’t then what can I say.
“He deserved to win today but if it was another day I might have won 3-0 or something like that.
“I feel better than I was in Rio. But that’s the Paralympics, you have to be better every four years it’s getting harder and harder.
“I was 1-0 up, 9-8 up and I missed the backhand. If I make that ball I think I would have won the match 3-0 probably. Sport is decided on those little details, a millimetre miss and then you lose the match.”
Bayley, who has arthrogryposis, which affects all four of his limbs, said he gained three stone having temporarily ceased action on his return from Brazil.
After battling back into shape, he was later forced to withdraw from series 17 of Strictly in week seven following a misjudged jump from a stage.
A long road to recovery followed, while his journey to Japan included missing major milestones in the lives of his two young daughters Bella and Grace in order to train at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, rather than be at home in Brighton.
He has received supportive messages from his old Strictly pals while in the Far East, including dance partner Janette Manrara, while former England goalkeeper David James and Olympic rower James Cracknell are among a group chat.
Having joyously booted his way out of the arena following a gruelling semi-final success over Liao Keli on Saturday, he was again in typically expressive mood as he rattled through the opening game.
But then came the momentum shift. Yan levelled following Bayley’s aforementioned backhand mistake, winning 14 out of 16 points to move 2-1 ahead and then complete a 9-11 11-9 11-2 11-8 victory.
“Yesterday was a big match and it drained me a little bit,” said Bayley.
“But I’ve been through a lot worse than this so I thought I had the resilience to come through and come back and win today but it wasn’t meant to be.
“He was probably fresher, he hasn’t really been challenged that badly, he won the semis 3-0, until now.
“But he played well today, so you’ve got to give it to him.”
Bayley has now reached three successive Paralympic singles finals after initially taking silver at London 2012.
He still has the team event to come at these Games and is also targeting another shot at success in three years’ time.
“Paris, I’ll go again – make it four finals in a row, that will be cool,” he said.
“It’s going to be difficult obviously But I keep fighting and showing my daughters that you don’t give up no matter what the odds are.
“I’ve had the odds stacked against me the last few years but come back.
“I’ve had people write me off – I haven’t won a major, I haven’t got to a major final since Rio. I’m a Paralympic guy, so it’s good.”