If ever there was a British table tennis player destined for greatness, it was surely Gavin Evans.
With two older brothers and parents who all played to a good level, he was capable of exchanging forehand and backhands with his father, Rhys, at the age of two. He played in his first competition at six, was a national champion at eight and playing internationally at the age of just 10.
He was also the junior champion at this year’s national championships to take his haul in English age-group singles titles to the remarkable tally of 16. For the record, they divide up as three titles at Under-10, Under-11, Under-12 and Under-14s, and then two apiece as a cadet and a junior.
The most recent was won with the loss of only one leg throughout the entire tournament at the Hertfordshire Sports Village in Hatfield, with Evans defeating Sam Walker in the semi-finals and then Zack Zilesnick in a one-sided final.
For Gavin, the win was particularly significant as it had been his first tournament for six months following surgery on his hip. “It was a major operation,” said Rhys. “He had been getting quite a lot of pain in his hip. They basically found that there was extra bone growing into the cartilage of his hip. It had damaged the cartilage and so it meant that they had to shave away some of the bone and repair the cartilage.”
Gavin had to spend a full month on crutches not putting any weight through his hip at all. Under the guidance of consultants in Cambridge, he has since been undergoing an intensive programme of physiotherapy.
He had returned to training in September and is also now back playing matches in Germany’s, Bundesliga 2 with his club side TTC GC Badhamm. Next month, he can look forward to one of the biggest events of the season when he plays in the world junior championships in Bratislava.
With four brothers – Bradley, Miles, Gavin and Scott – all reaching a national standard, the Evans family achievement is clearly remarkable. Rhys and his wife Linda were both table tennis players, and they became involved in the successful Cippenham table-tennis club in Slough.
Coaching groups were established in 1996 by Ken Phillips, with first Bradley, who is now 21, and then Miles, enjoying considerable success.
The Evans family then took the decision to move to Nottingham and nearer the national performance centre, although when that closed they actually built a shed in their garden with enough space for a table in order to practice. All remained heavily involved in sport.
Bradley is currently working towards a sports science degree in Sheffield, Miles continues to coach with Rhys at their local club in Grantham while their fourth son, 11-year-old Scott, is in the local high performance group.
Gavin, who is now 17, is playing full-time and based at the Institute for Sport in Sheffield. In 2008, he won the European Youth Championships as a cadet and then the youth Olympics, as well as the doubles world championship and the world team championship. As a cadet, he was ranked number one in Europe.
The big issue, however, is whether he can bridge the gap from junior to senior competition. Rhys is acutely aware that it is a major transition point.
“It is a point at which we do seem to lose an awful lot of players,” he says, “Gavin is trying to do everything right, although his body had let him down this year with the hip injury. If it wasn’t for that, it would have been easier for him. It is extremely difficult and extremely hard to make that transition especially if your body is not right.”
For an English table-tennis player of huge promise, the option of living abroad has become an inevitable dilemma. “I think if you asked all of the players, it is not something they would really want to do,” says Rhys, “but there is a good chance that it is something he will need to do.”
The problem, as ever, is the availability of quality practice. With the likes of Liam Pitchford and Paul Drinkhall playing abroad so regularly, the very best players are not always at Sheffield on a day to day basis. “When he was coming back over the last few months, most of the best players and the coaches were away for the Commonwealth Games, “ says Rhys, “and so you are scratching around looking for decent practice. That is a big, big problem in this country. We need more quality opposition and it is something that comes down to money. I’m sure that Paul Drinkhall doesn’t want to live in Germany either but he also wants to be practicing with the people of the standard he will be competing against.
“There is a wonderful facility and support staff at Sheffield but, if you can’t get the players there or support the players, it becomes meaningless. Each played does not have indefinite period to get things right.
“We need to get players into the world’s top 100; they all need to be pushed and there also should be competition from the players coming through behind them. But history says that the all of the players who have really done anything in the sport from England – people like Alan Cooke, Desmond Douglas, Carl Prean and Alex Perry – have had to base themselves abroad at some stage.”
He is continuing to achieve great things as a junior but it is equally clear that, for Gavin Evans, the next 12 months could be pivotal.
By Jeremy Wilson