Sunday 25 June 2017

Tennis: Cahill serving up bright future for Irish tennis

Opened in 2005, the National Tennis Centre is starting to produce results, writes Andrew Cosgrave

YOU hear them before you see them. Outside, in the heavy rain, the grunts and groans of exertion and effort are audible from a long way off.

Inside, Ireland's elite tennis players are in training, gathered under the plastic dome that shrouds the National Tennis Centre's clay courts. Situated in the bustling campus of Dublin City University, it is a beating heart of sporting excellence.

Under the watchful eye of Tennis Ireland's technical director Garry Cahill, the morning session is in full flow. Conor Niland, Colin O'Brien, James McGee, and Lazare Kukhalashvili are slugging it out. Massive shots are exchanged, back and forth. Cross-court forehands, flirting with the baseline. Double-fisted backhands, wicked and fierce. Lost causes are chased down, the players sliding across the clay like skaters on dirty ice, dust flying off their heels. They stop to take a breather, sweat dripping and steam rising from their bodies.

"This is their first day on clay", Cahill explains. "The clay season is only starting, so they're just getting a feel for it today."

Prior to the opening of the NTC in 2005, tennis in Ireland did not enjoy a great deal of professionalism. In past years, Sean Sorensen and Irish-American Matt Doyle brought some success, but coaching and facilities were well below par. National players were forced to employ their own private coaches, and only trained two or three days a week.

The advent of the centre, therefore, was a seminal moment. It was a major achievement for Cahill, Tennis Ireland CEO Des Allen, and others who had long campaigned for such a facility. These days, the players work full-time; even national junior players train six days a week. The centre boasts on-site access to state-of-the-art gym equipment and the services of sports scientists. It currently caters for the 31 junior and senior players who comprise the national squad.

Cahill oversees everything. He is a tennis obsessive. A top junior player before becoming a coach, tennis is all he has ever known. He punches in long days at the centre and, once he gets home, he will continue working, chatting online with his players in competition around the world. It never stops.

He is also often on the road, travelling to tournaments and coaching events. Next week, it's Belgium. "I'm spending next week in the national training centre there, working with their high-performance group," he explains. Belgium has had a big influence on Cahill. As well as modelling the NTC on their set-up, he has worked with renowned coach Ivo van Aken, who trained Grand Slam winners Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.

Securing enough funding to keep the facility in operation is a constant battle. "We get €160,000 from the Irish Sports Council for the high-performance programme," Cahill explains. "But it costs about €400,000 to run the programme; and that's really cutting corners as well." The physio, for example, only comes in once a week.

The rest of the €400,000 comes from sponsors such as BNP Paribas, as well as from Tennis Ireland, who get income from club membership fees. Cahill estimates, by way of comparison, that Britain's tennis federation, the LTA, gets around €20m for their high-performance programme. However he notes that they are not getting significantly better results. "At the top level, we are on a par with them, apart from Andy Murray. If you take him out of the equation, I think we have a better Davis Cup team at the moment."

The players themselves also face funding concerns. "It's so expensive being a pro," says Niland. "I get some funding from the Irish Sports Council, and some from my club, Fitzwilliam, which is great, but that doesn't even cover a quarter of my costs." Cahill estimates the travel costs for a player like Niland -- who flies to Houston this week for an elite ATP tour event -- can range from €50,000 to €70,000. "And that's not staying in five-star hotels," he stresses. "That's roughing it."

In spite of this, Niland is enjoying a good season. "I'm consistently winning matches. I want to finish the year in the top 140 in the world, and I'm on course to do that." Currently, he is at 238 in the world. His career-high ranking is 229, and Cahill believes he will better that when the latest rankings come out next week. The battle for the position of Irish No 1 is closely fought between Niland and Stuttgart-based Louk Sorensen. Sorensen is currently on top, thanks in part to his incredible achievement of reaching the second round in this year's Australian Open.

All of the players acknowledge the positive influence the NTC has had on their development. Aside from the facilities, they believe that coming together in one location has brought benefits.

"It's great having a base. We can play together and talk together," says James Cluskey, a young pro currently coming back from injury. The camaraderie among the players is clear; they are friends as well as colleagues, and the competition that comes with playing each other also gives them added motivation.

After lunch, each player follows their own individual training programme. For some, that means gym work; for others, it means more playing time. One of those returning to the courts is Amy Bowtell, a shy 16-year-old from Co Wicklow. Bowtell has been on the squad since she was nine. Cahill has high hopes for her, and expects her to make the top 100 in the world rankings in the coming years.

On court, she is in her element. Her ball striking is pure and consistent, and though she stands at six feet tall, her movement is graceful. "Hits a good ball, doesn't she?" Cahill says, proudly. Moments later, however, he's on her case. "You have to keep the quality of spin on the ball, especially on the backhand return," he implores. Despite the intense regime, their relationship is good, and they have time to share a joke or two.

The afternoon also sees the younger players, ranging from nine to 13, arrive for training. Some are barely taller than the net, but have clearly grown up on the court.

Above this group, there is currently a gap of a few years to the next batch of talent, which includes Bowtell, Alan Gleeson (16), Roman Grogan (18), John Morrissey (17) and Sam Barry (18), who yesterday teamed up with New Zealand's Ben McLachlan to win the Boy's Doubles title at an ITF tournament in Japan.

It takes a lot of commitment, both for the kids and the parents. Bowtell trains six days a week. "She's very focused," notes her mother, Trina. "She has been from a frightfully young age. We're lucky to have a world-class coach on our doorstep. Amy's been to [world-famous coach] Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, but there's nobody else she'd rather have than Gary."

Bowtell is central to Cahill's hopes for Ireland's young Fed Cup team, which he captains. "At the moment we have a lot of [senior] guys, and not so many ladies. It'll change in the next three years," he predicts.

The Davis Cup team, meanwhile, is captained by Sean Sorenson. Their next fixture is against Lithuania in July, and they are riding high following victory against Turkey.

McGee cites his participation in the Turkey match as a career highlight, but his hunger for success still drives him on, and he wants to play at ATP level. "The goal is to make the ATP. I don't think any of the lads would be doing it otherwise. But it's tough," he says. Nevertheless, he's optimistic about the future. "There's more of a feeling of belief about Irish tennis."

However in spite of this optimism, and the relatively modest funding that tennis receives when compared to other countries, some casual observers are quick to criticise Ireland's perceived lack of success in the sport, and question where all the money is going. But with so many people vying for the same goal on tour, it is, says Niland, difficult to separate yourself.

"Being in the top 150 in the world doesn't sound like much, but when you think that tennis is a global sport, it's massive," he says. "People dismiss Tim Henman, who was number four in the world. Crazy."

Cahill puts it in perspective. "If I was getting €20m a year, and we weren't winning Wimbledon after 10 years, or close to it, you'd be very pissed off," he says. "But for what we're getting, I think anybody looking at it logically can see that it's a pretty good performance to be where we're at."

Cahill has two primary aims: to nurture and develop top-100 players, and, once that's done, target the top 50. "There's still a long way to go," he says. "We're only four of five years down the road, and it takes 10 years before you see a lot of changes. I think we will do better in the future. Hopefully, when we get a bit more time with this programme, we can prove that."

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