Anna Hursey is a household name in Wales, but her feats in her opening match are gaining her plenty of attention in Australia. (Reuters: Jeremy Lee)
Australia, meet Anna Hursey — a shy, unassuming girl who at the age of just 11, is a full international representative for Wales in women’s table tennis.
She’s the youngest athlete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and it is believed she is the youngest athlete to represent Wales at senior level in any sport.
And now she’s on course for a crunch quarter-final clash with Australia’s team.
In her home country, she’s a household name. In Australia, we’re only just discovering this table tennis savant. But already, Hursey is drawing a crowd of international admirers.
Anna Hursey stoops low and concentrates while returning serve to Sri Lanka’s Ishara Manikku Badu (ABC News: James Maasdorp)
Welsh fans waved flags and roared at every point won in her teams singles tie against Sri Lanka’s Ishara Manikku Badu. Inside the Oxenford show court, with the seats filled with fans clad in Australian colours — it was obvious who the neutrals were backing.
Manikku Badu’s experience told in the singles tie, taking a 2-0 lead against the Welsh prodigy.
But the crowd was firmly on the edge of its seat as Hursey fought back spectacularly to level the match at two games apiece, showing bottle to win the fourth game 12-10.
When the rallies became rapid, Hursey more than held her own against a physically stronger opponent, collecting a clutch of incredible winners that drew enormous cheers from all watching.
The Sri Lankan would win the deciding game, and take out the match to level the tie at 1-1, but the close nature of the match kept up Wales’ momentum in the tie.
“[Badu] has played in two or three Commonwealth Games so we knew it was going to be tough, she’s really experienced,” Welsh coach Stephen Jenkins told the ABC.
“She [Hursey] almost came back, she was 2-0 down, it just shows how much she can fight. I take massive positives from that match. I’m really proud of her.”
Hursey straight back off the canvas to clinch doubles win
Despite the setback, Jenkins had no qualms throwing Hursey into the mixer once more for the doubles tie. It paid off in spades.
Charlotte Carey says the Welsh team is supportive of their much younger teammate. (Reuters: Jeremy Lee)
Paired with Chloe Thomas, the Welsh duo proved too much for the Sri Lankan doubles unit, winning in straight sets as Hursey demonstrated flair and a steely appetite for winning.
Understandably, Hursey doesn’t talk to the media. But her coach and team-mates do the talking for her, and speak in glowing terms about their young team-mate.
“We feed off each other, we help each other through the match,” Thomas said after Wales won the tie 3-1.
Welsh team-mate Charlotte Carey told the ABC everyone was supporting Hursey and helping her stay focused.
“We’re all getting along really well. We’re all enjoying playing together, we’re all enjoying the company,” Carey said.
“We’ve all got to support each other as a team at the end of the day. Me and Chloe are the more experienced players, I’ve played three Commonwealths and Chloe’s played two. We’ve just got to keep her focused and try and help her to play her best, really.”
China coaching sees Hursey streak past her peers
Hursey’s mind-boggling climb up the table tennis ladder began at age five when she received one-on-one coaching while on holiday with her parents in China — the place to go if you’re serious about the sport.
She would continue her training and schooling in Harbin, China over the years, winning the Welsh under-18 title at the age of nine.
In China, she trains 30 hours a week, but coach Jenkins insists a proper life balance for a young child remains paramount.
“As long as she’s happy and enjoying her training and her tournaments, and she keeps [improving] as a player, it’s good enough for me, good enough for her, and good enough for her parents, so everybody’s relaxed about it. There’s no pressure from anyone,” he said.
“A good life balance, you know, she goes to school, got good friends, a social life as well. Table tennis is really important to her, but she’s got other things as well.”
Fascinating character on the court
Hursey provides compelling viewing. When returning serve, she stands almost crane-like, her bat tilted ready for a deceptive spinning return.
A shy girl off the court, the prodigy from Cardiff’s persona switches immediately to an intensely focused, unfazed competitor when entering the arena.
Regardless if Wales progress past the quarter-finals clash with Australia on Friday afternoon or not, Hursey is on track to win more than just table-tennis matches on the Gold Coast.
Coach Jenkins says everything is set up to give Hursey the support she needs in what is hoped is a long career in table tennis.
“There’s a good relationship with the parents, good relationship with the team,” Jenkins said.
“Team Wales have been absolutely fantastic, they’re always behind us. Couldn’t ask for a better team and crew behind us.
“They’re really supportive. It’s a family, really.”
The Welsh table tennis team Anna Hursey (2nd L) alongside (LtoR) coach Stephen Jenkins, Chloe Thomas and Charlotte Carey say they are like a family. (ABC News: James Maasdorp)