The rally is slowing: what is the future for Irish tennis?

By Peter McKenna

The seasons of sport come and go like an endless tennis rally. Back and forth. Football, Golf and GAA, you name it. For such a small country, a population of only 4.5 million, we have a rich sporting history. A plethora of sports to choose from, there’s something for everyone.

However, for a country so passionate about sport, why have we failed to produce a top tennis athlete within the last twenty years?

Soccer is one of the most popular sports on this island, however, golf and rugby have really progressed in recent years, with their following and participation rates at an all-time high. The success of the Irish rugby team in recent years has coincided with this increase in popularity, just as the emergence of golfers like Rory McIlroy, Seamus Power, Paul Dunne and Shane Lowry has helped golf to grow.

However, a sport which seems to be in decline in this country is tennis. In recent years we’ve heard brief mentions of Irish tennis players almost qualifying for the major tournaments. Is it that we are just not good enough?

The Irish football team have numerous players, playing their trade at the top level. David McGoldrick, Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady play week in, week out, in one of the toughest leagues in the world. Even our cricket team have notable victories over veteran sides such as India. A truly amazing feat considering cricket’s popularity in comparison to that of other sports in this country. It has been over twenty years now, for a country that has made such a historical contribution to tennis, without an Irish player inside the top 100 ATP or WTA rankings.

So why have we failed to produce a top tennis talent? Derek Healy, a coach in Shankill tennis club has his thoughts on the matter.

“I have coached a lot of top tennis players throughout the last 10 years and why I think so many people fail, is due to the way players are taught to play tennis in this country. Everything is wrong, starting with Tennis Ireland. They teach kids to play in the same way, they are all like robots.”

He added: “Players have no identity; they are all thought one way of playing which is just wrong. We also have a lack of facilities; a lack of grass courts and no clay means that we are already at a disadvantage. We have either savanna or indoor courts, surfaces which very few tournaments are actually played on.”

Another problem with the sport is the view that it’s only for the elite, something which can be easily seen. Membership to a club can cost upwards of €400, a large fee in comparison to playing football in the park for free. However there has been a significant rise in the number of Irish students receiving scholarships to America, in pursuit of the ultimate goal, to make it as a professional.

Coilin MacNamara, a Shankill native, is currently three years into a four-year scholarship at Stetson University, Florida. His goal is to make it in the pro ranks, and he’s noticed a massive change in the calibre of player he faces in America.

Conor said: “Every game over here is a challenge, it’s so different to Ireland, however playing with these players improves my game, and will hopefully take me to the next level.”

The weather is also a factor in why tennis has rather stagnated in this country. All year round the weather ranges from four to 25 degrees Celsius, a moderate temperature. However, playing tournaments in Australia, when the red can reach 40 degrees Celsius is another kettle of fish.

MacNamara said: “My first tournament over here we played in the scorching sun and I couldn’t move. I felt so lethargic and slow. I got absolutely destroyed in the match. I am, now however coping with the hot temperatures better. It’s a really big change though playing in constant sunlight.”

The greatest challenge though for tennis in this country is the popularity of other sports. Long gone are the days where KitKat Tennis dominated the summer holidays for kids. It has now been replaced with golf lessons and rugby camps. The lack of kids playing the game today is an ominous sign. Will we ever produce a player as talented as the late great Cecil Parke or Joshua Pim? These two players are the pinnacle of Irish tennis. Parke an Olympic champion in 1896, and Pim a two-time Wimbledon champion.

Their achievements were mighty, and I fear that they will never be repeated by an Irish player again. Here’s to hoping that somewhere out there, there may be a future Irish tennis champion.

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