James McGee's successes a reminder tennis still has a place in Irish sport

Newstalk.com speaks to Tennis Ireland's high performance director Garry Cahill about challenges they face and why Waterford has become a growing hub for Irish talent

Gary Cahill, Tennis Ireland, Tennis, High Performance Director

Image: ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan 

After his second set in the sweltering heat, James McGee must have felt the tide beginning to turn.

Loose gravel and dust kicked up off the surface of the court and clouded his eyes. He took a moment to step back into the shade to feel its cooling relief.

The main draw for the Australian Open was just a set away and with the momentum now in his favour, the 29-year-old knew it was imperative to keep his cool. Difficult, of course, as temperatures continued to climb toward 30°C.

Australia's own Blake Mott rallied to take the final set 6-3. A home favourite had sent the Irishman packing.

For those unfamiliar, McGee was the only Irish senior player to compete in qualifying for the first Grand Slam of the year. This month in fact.

Tennis doesn't capture the imagination as much as other sports in the country. GAA, soccer and rugby are widely considered the big three, with golf coming in just behind thanks to the emergence of global players like Shane Lowry and of course Rory McIlroy hailing from these shores.

"A lot of the Irish talent within the parishes tend to go to the GAA," explains Tennis Ireland's high performance director, Garry Cahill. 

"The talent pool would be bigger if we didn’t have the competition with those three main sports. But Federations can’t control the talent that comes through, same goes for the GAA."

Cahill has been immersed in Irish tennis since the turn of the millennium. Between 2001 and 2005, he was the Irish Davis Cup captain and has been high performance director with Tennis Ireland for the last seven years.

In his role, Cahill has helped develop young Irish talent and has watched other Irish professionals like McGee spread their wings and compete on the ATP Challenger Tour.

For so long Conor Niland was the shining light on the Irish tennis scene. Simon Carr has emerged as Ireland's next hot prospects and one of the finest young players in the world, but the 17-year-old couldn't make his mark at this year's Junior Australian Open.

"It takes time to put structures in place and then to have your first crop of players come through that structure.

"You need time when it comes from no real framework and obviously success will not happen overnight. We got close with Conor Niland who got to 129 which is a good start, but really you need someone who’s consistently on TV that the younger athletes can aspire to be."

James McGee (right) celebrates with with Davis Cup captain Garry Cahill at the end of his match against Egyptian opposition in 2014. Image: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

Star power is something that has drawn young people to sport, not least the explosion of mixed martial arts in this country with the arrival of Conor McGregor. And like competing in any sport at an elite level, there is an essential mix of time, dedication and skill required to make it to the top.

"The progress we've made is being closer to being able to provide international level programmes without having to leave the country.

"Being able to have an Academy structure that was already in place in the stronger tennis federations and nations around the world 20 or 30 years ago. There was nothing like this in Ireland 15 years ago, only kids training on a part-time basis.

"There weren’t training anywhere near the level they needed to train as professional athletes.

"We’ve put together structures that a talented child can stay within the country until a certain point and develop the skills to be at a high international level.

"Kids start in the regional programmes around the country and from regional programmes they can switch to national programmes. After that, they move from national programmes to the international level.

"If a kid comes from a regional programme at a young age, they’ll only come to Dublin for the weekend - Friday and Saturday.

"As they progress through the ages it becomes a bit more intense. Up until 12 years of age, they really only have to come to Dublin for the weekend. After that they need to come Dublin midweek as well as the weekends."

Tennis Ireland is based in Dublin City University on the capital's north side and is home to Ireland's National Tennis Academy. Courts have been refurbished across from the college in Albert College Park and a small gym can be found on-site. Athletes also avail of gym facilities on-campus, the same available to some Dublin inter-county GAA players and that was available to Dundalk's squad who competed in the Europa League last season.

"The centre itself has about 65 or 70 that are involved within our programmes at the Academy. We’ve nine coaches and two physical trainers in here as well with us. The groups are spread out among the coaches."

Garry Cahill watches on at the Davis Cup in 2011. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

As high performance director, Cahill's role has changed to a less hands-on role with young Irish talent coming through the system.

Players are split up by age group, U10, 10-12, 12-14 and then in a transition to professional group between 14-18.

The Academy pours its attention to developing young talent, but allows a little bit more freedom when players are introduced into the transitional phase.

"At an older stage, [developing skillsets] depends on the individual. When someone gets to the stage of 16, 17 or 18, it’s completely individual. They’re not all the same, whereas the younger age groups prove to be more generic.

"At that older age, is depends on the characteristic of the athlete themselves. The amount of time they would spend on various components like speed, physical, tactical and technical, it varies from athlete to athlete.

"Players can leave if they have their own individual coaching structure. They may need to have better sparring partners at a certain point. Smaller countries struggle to have enough players to spar with within their own federations.

"For example, James [McGee] has his own coaching structure. He plays the Challenger Tour in the United States and he spars in the States because he would struggle to get someone to spar with him in Ireland."

Currently, Irish Academy prospects like Sam Barry who is competing in the Challenger and Future tours overseas and Sinead Lohan who finished top five in the US colleges last year and may pursue a professional career if she is able to recover sufficiently from a hip injury, are hopes that stretch out overseas. Georgia Drummy, although only 16, is another Irish competitor to watch in the coming years.

Sinead Lohan in action against Rachael Dillon at the National Indoor Tennis Championships. Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The search for talent extends all over the country in regional programmes, with one corner of the country more prevalent than most for feeding players into the national academy.

"It’s funny, one of the hubs is Tramore in Waterford. It’s a long distance from Waterford to the national centre but we have so much talent that has come through from that county.

"One of our top U14 girls is from Tramore, as is one of our top U12 boys and one of our top U12 girls is as well. There’s quite large talent pool that comes from that part of the country."

Home to St Annes Tennis Club on John's Hill and Tramore Tennis Club, as well as societies in Waterford's Institute of Technology, Cahill cites another reason for the quirk.

"There’s a good coach down there by the name of Willie Reynolds and that can attract a lot of young players into the sport. He’s helped produce a lot of good young players and knows how to do it."

The questions remains as to why in a country that has produced so many top hurlers, there have been so few high profile Irish tennis stars?

Work continues to be done and investment into infrastructure within the framework, but with all large scale projects like these, the key ingredient remains to be time.