Struggling Irish tennis remains an uphill battle fought by lone soldiers
Lack of funding and competition from other sports has hindered meaningful progress
Amy Bowtell announced her intention to become a professional tennis player at a tournament in France when she was just 10. Mid-serve, the talented and ambitious athlete from Greystones, Co Wicklow, turned to her coach and declared with utter certainty: "I'm gonna go pro."
Within a few years Amy became Ireland's top female player, gaining a ranking in the top 400 of the Women's Tennis Association in 2014. But for the 22-year-old - and many other aspiring Irish tennis players - it has been a constant uphill battle.
"In Ireland, if you don't have a private sponsor, it's almost impossible to reach the top level," she told the Sunday Independent. "We can't afford to take the steps that Roger Federer would have taken, or Maria Sharapova. It's not the same for them as it is for us. We're restricted from achieving our goals."
Shortcomings in funding have been hampering the development of professional tennis in Ireland for decades.
Top coaches insist financial investment is not being shared equally among sports - team and individual.
Garry Cahill, technical director at Tennis Ireland, claims international players have an edge over most Irish players before they even step on court.
"Even though we have a lot of clubs, and a lot of structures, we don't have the investment that is needed for the pro players at the last stages where it is really important for them to progress," he said.
Mr Cahill adds that big corporate companies tend to invest in teams, not individual athletes.
"Most companies probably see that as a bit risky, but certainly in our sport, and not just in tennis, it is a massive issue," he said.
"Getting an individual to the highest level - to Grand Slam success - is so huge and so costly that you really need investment similar to what would be devoted to entire teams."
In order to make a career in tennis, players need to travel for about 30 weeks of the year. But they cannot succeed alone. Like any GAA, rugby or soccer team, tennis players need their coach and crucial support services, including a psychologist, nutritionist and physiotherapist, to perform to the best of their ability.
"When you're in a smaller nation like us, you are competing against nations that have Grand Slams and a lot more investment so it's not a level playing field," said Cahill, adding: "Players from other countries already have a massive edge over the Irish".
Cahill, who has trained some of Ireland's elite tennis players, including Conor Niland, Sam Barry and Amy Bowtell, says the issue has become particularly acute for players between the ages of 17 and 24 years.
Many promising players are now approaching that crucial seven-year period, including Georgia Drummy (15) from Donnybrook, who qualified in the Australian Open juniors last week.
Simon Carr (16) from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is the son of former Dublin footballer and manager Tommy Carr, and is already playing in Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tournaments.
"It's that seven-year period when nobody knows who you are and you're trying to break through the rankings to become a household name - that's where we need the massive injection of investment, not when you make it," said Cahill.
"If you're in the top 80 in the world, you make incredible amounts of money, but if you're someone who is 300-500 spots outside of that level you cannot afford to live," he added.
The situation is also very stressful for players: "They are cutting costs everywhere they can by flying as cheap at irregular hours and staying in bargain hotels."
Cahill acknowledges many positives in Irish tennis, including the success of the National Tennis Centre at DCU, and says he appreciates the funding currently provided by the Irish Sports Council but adds it is "nowhere near what we need".
The National Tennis Academy has a cohort of 60 young players, but realistically Cahill estimates that their current level of funding is "possibly enough to take just one player to the top".
Recent research shows that the number of Irish players ranked in international rankings has significantly increased in the past eight years. However, fears are also growing that Ireland will lose world-class players to other sports including Gaelic games and rugby.
"The sports that have more funding, where parents don't have to invest as much, are probably more attractive for them. We are going to start losing players, 100 per cent," said Cahill, adding that the traditional all-whites clothing policy is another barrier for kids who want to wear the same bright-coloured gear as their tennis heroes.
It is also very frustrating for players and coaches to see much more investment in team sports.
"It's absolutely frustrating," he added. "The GAA is a huge sport in Ireland and I understand that, but I think we have potential in other sports like tennis, that is on an international level and the investment is not being spread across the sports."
Last year, Irish tennis received €525,497 in funding - the 13th largest investment across more than 60 sports. The investment supports Tennis Ireland's strategic planning, national and international competitions, equipment, coaching, talent ID programmes, the National Academy and other core activities.
In addition, Sport Ireland provides a range of direct services to high performance athletes and coaches including sports medicine, rehab, strength and conditioning, nutrition and physiology.
A spokesman for the Irish Sport Council said investment in tennis has increased despite a series of reduced or flat budgets. However, they also encouraged sporting bodies to attract private sponsorship.
"Tennis is a highly competitive international market. Any investment by the public through Sport Ireland must be maximised. Reliance upon exchequer funding for sporting organisations is unsustainable," the spokesman said.
But for those holding the racket, attracting private sponsorship is very challenging. Amy Bowtell, who is recovering from hip surgery, has crowd-funded to cover costs.
However, she still can't afford to travel with a coach and physio or attend top international tournaments in Asia and South America.
"Maybe if I'd had that support I wouldn't have ended up in the position I'm in now - where I haven't played at all and I've just had surgery. I'm even paying for my physio," she said.
"It's so tough. We need interested people to get behind tennis to ensure our junior players don't have to endure the same barriers," added Amy, who intends to be back on court later this summer.
Sunday Indo Sport