By RJ Mitchell
CALLUM SMITH has pronounced his successful comeback at the YONEX Welsh International Championships as the perfect dress rehearsal for this week’s European Men’s Team Championship qualifiers.
The Scottish champion made his return to the competitive match court in Cardiff last week following an absence of just under six months after suffering a torn ligament and bone bruising to his right ankle during a training session at the Sir Craig Reedie Centre on June 28.
But after showing exceptional dedication and discipline to his rehab programme the 21-year-old bounced back ahead of schedule with two impressive victories in the qualification tournament at the Sport Wales National Centre over Welsh and Polish opposition.
Before finally falling at the ultimate hurdle in an epic three-set tussle with seeded Frenchman Amaury Lievre losing 19-21 in the third to just miss out on main draw qualification.
Now looking back on the benefits of his return to action, Callum shared: “It’s great to be back competing again after such a long time off and to be able to come back and get a couple of wins is even better than I’d hoped for.
“That said it was disappointing to lose the third set in the final round of qualies but it got me right back in the competitive mindset.
“So I hope I have shown myself and the coaches I am back at a level where I am competing with European guys and I’ve taken a lot of confidence from it all.”
The great news is that Callum’s ankle has come through this stringent fitness test with flying colours and the three-time Scottish Men’s singles champion said: “The ankle was fine, albeit it was in the back of my head I’d been through surgery. In training it does get a bit sore sometimes but eases off after a few points so it didn’t play any negative part in the tournament.
“The key is to keep doing the rehab work and as long as I do that it is fine, so I stayed positive, focussed on the match plan and it didn’t bother me.”
Yet as Callum admitted having to play two matches in one day before following that up with a third 24 hours later was testing after a six month break from competitive badminton: “In training when we do matches it is one set against one person and then we swap, so this was my first time playing a best of three match against an opponent.
“So it was interesting that I won the first set against all my opponents 21-8, against the Welsh boy, 21-5 against the Polish boy and 21 – 16 against the French guy Lievre and that, I think, is because of what I was used to in training.
“Then in the second set of each of these matches I just felt that bit off the pace, was less disciplined and maybe less focussed but I still managed to get over the line in the first two and just came up short 19 and 19 in the third match.
“But to play two matches on the first day and have no reaction was great. Also it was maybe a bit lucky as most of these tournaments can be three matches in one day, so that was a break just having the two on day one.
“But I refuelled and recharged for the second game against the Polish boy and played pretty well and then was good to go again on the second day which was almost even more pleasing from the ankle perspective.”
Yet as Callum explained, given how close he came to victory, the defeat against Lievre still rankled: “When I came off the court I was pretty annoyed with myself but as the day went on I got some perspective on it and obviously it was my first tournament back.
“It would have been nice to get the win but it has given me a confidence boost as that match could have gone either way and Lievre is a top player.
“Really it was ideal preparation for the Europeans.”
Turning his attention to this week’s EMTC24 – Group 5 – Subgroup 1 campaign against Slovakia and Ukraine, which kicks off with Thursday’s opener against the latter at the National Badminton Centre, Milton Keynes, Callum is determined to lift his level again.
He said: “I am happier now knowing that I can compete like that on the circuit and I just feel like I perform better under pressure and when there is qualification on the line for your country I am hoping that will help me lift my level again this week.
“So I am really looking forward to competing at MK.”
Turning his attention to the opposition, the Scottish champion has no doubt that the opening match against Ukraine provides the key to our qualification hopes for next year’s finals in Poland.
Callum said: “Ukraine are the strongest, although I believe they have an injury doubt with one of their players, so we need a good start against them.
“That would give us momentum into the Slovakia match on Saturday and then if we can beat them it will probably come down to Belgium in the final game who I think will come through from Subgroup 2.
“I haven’t played any of their singles players before so that will be interesting but their guys will have a lot of badminton in their legs and I am pretty fresh.
“This week training will be tapered towards each opponent in terms of their game styles, video analysis and what they bring to the court and we will be good to go for sure.”
So the big question is will there be any nerves at the NBC?
Callum reflected: “I am not someone who gets nervous and all you can do is your best and hopefully that will see us through to the finals in Poland next year.
“So it will be three singles, one a day and that is perfect for me. Really I am confident both in my ability and the team’s to progress but although we are maybe favourites it will be tough and I just want to put my point on the scoreboard for the team and do my best for us.”
Meanwhile Chris and Matthew Grimley have continued their exceptional form by winning the Welsh International Men’s Doubles Championship with an 18-21, 21-16, 21-17 victory over German duo Bjarne Geiss and Jan Colin Voelker.
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