Tuesday 12 December 2017

Irish pro-tennis player reveals the diet and fitness plans she follows to make it to Wimbledon

Jenny Claffey trains six days a week, every morning, afternoon and evening.
Jenny Claffey trains six days a week, every morning, afternoon and evening.
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

When she was a child, Jenny Claffey decided she wanted to win at Wimbledon. The pro-tennis player now trains six days a week, every morning, afternoon and evening.

Pro-tennis player Jenny Claffey (25) from Blackrock, Co Dublin has played nine tournaments around the world since her pro-debut in March. Last week, Jenny won her first international professional singles tournament in Egypt, a title which will see a very speedy ascension through the official world rankings for this newcomer, when they are announced later today.

However, Jenny will need to compete in anything from 25 to 30 tournaments each year in order to climb the pro-rankings and reach her goal: to compete and win at Wimbledon.

"Tennis was in my family; my mum is a tennis coach and I have got four older brothers, so when I was a kid I was always being trucked around the place to tournaments and practice," Jenny tells me. "I started to play when I was four - at least that is my earliest memory of being on the court, I'm not sure how much tennis I was really playing, but I started training properly when I was seven."

Soon, Jenny's natural talent and love for the game came to the fore, and by the age of nine she was involved in the Leinster Squad and playing at any opportunity.

"It was all that I ever wanted to do. I wanted to play, I wanted to practise and I was constantly bugging my mum to bring me," Jenny laughs. "I wanted to be better than my brothers as well because they had a few years on me and they were better than me at the time, so that was a driving force for me back then.

"Under 12s was when I started to win national titles," Jenny explains. "And it is one of those sports; you can really tell, generally, when kids are quite young whether they have it or not."

And Jenny certainly had it, so much so that when she was 15, she took fourth year off school to travel to Valencia in Spain where she attended a full-time tennis training academy, after which she had intended to begin her professional career.

However, a serious shoulder injury put a stop to these plans.

"I was out of tennis for nearly three years, I had one shoulder injury, then another and also contracted glandular fever," Jenny says. "It was a real shame. During that time, all I wanted was to be homeschooled and play on the professional tour, but my parents made the decision because I was injured that I would go back to school."

Jenny completed her Leaving Cert and studied for a degree in Economics and Spanish in UCD.

"I got back into tennis while I was at UCD and played for Ireland on the Federation Cup team three times," she says. "And after college, I worked as a tennis coach for a year and a half to save up some money and build up the financial stability to enable me to go out on the professional tour."

In March of this year, Jenny did just that, spending weeks at a time out of the country attempting to increase her ranking points by competing in various tournaments around the world.

However, one major stumbling block in the process has been the expense - without a major sponsor, Jenny has found herself scrambling for the funds to allow her to continue on her sporting journey.

"You need serious money for it, so I am currently writing to companies and looking for corporate sponsors or any sort of sponsor to keep me out there," she admits. "I have played seven tournaments so far this year and my family are helping me until the end of the year and I am coaching when I am back to try and make some money as well, but it is a big challenge.

"I'm very new - this is really only the beginning for me, and with every trip and every tournament, I am learning so much about my game and developing," Jenny explains.

"The tournaments I am playing at the moment are called $10,000 tournament; so that's the total sum of the prize money which is divided between something like 80 players, so you aren't making any money at this stage, but the top-ranked players in these sorts of tournaments are around the 300/400 mark in terms of world rankings. So it's pretty close, as if you are in the top 100/200, you will be playing in the Grand Slams like Wimbledon and the Australian open; the standard is very high."

Jenny has had her sights set firmly on a Wimbledon win since childhood and today she is as passionate and determined about realising that dream as ever.

"My top goal is to win Wimbledon," she smiles. "To play in Wimbledon and be the first Irish woman to play singles in Wimbledon would be huge for me.

"As a kid, I always had this painting on my wall that said 'Wimbledon is my dream, I'll play it soon and win it.' That always sticks out to me and I still actually have it. But to get there I have to be ranked in the top 100 and I am working on that by travelling to all of these tournaments. Once I get there, I will be one step closer."

Jenny completes two tennis sessions a day, with fitness exercises in between, six days each week. Her fitness sessions include a mixture of on court tennis-specific movements and weights, resistance training and cardio in the gym.

"I do cardio at the moment in every session in intervals, so it's a very quick explosive session combined with a weight session - a power or a push and pull, it depends on each day," Jenny explains.

"I will also do a specific leg session another day, which will concentrate just on the lower body and I will have an upper-body session and a rehab programme too for keeping my shoulder right. So it's a bit of a mixture, but there is a lot of power and speed because that's what tennis is about. I am totally dedicated, I give it everything every day."

For flexibility she also does one yoga session per week.

When it comes to nutrition, Jenny follows a well-balanced low-GI, slow-release diet of 40pc protein, 40 carbohydrates and 20pc fats every day.

"My food would be a low-GI diet because it is important for me to have that prolonged release of energy," she explains. "Tennis is quite intensive - you are four hours on court for each session, so you are burning up a lot of energy.

"At the moment, I am in the middle of an intensive four-week block of training, so I actually eat 3,000 calories on a training day, which is quite a lot, but because of the extent of the training that I am doing, I am constantly burning those calories and I have to eat to keep my weight stable."

Jenny does not consider this regimental lifestyle a sacrifice, but is instead very appreciative that she has the opportunity to pursue the sport she has loved all of her life.

"There are obviously small things like your social life is slightly affected and diet, but I don't see it as a huge sacrifice because I enjoy it," she explains. "Even when I am tired and I am getting up to go and practice, I enjoy it and I feel very lucky.

"It may have been a sacrifice for my parents financially over the years, as they would have had to put a lot of money into it on my behalf. They are extremely supportive, as are all four of my brothers. When we were growing up, my brothers played as well and so when they started to see me getting a bit of attention, I suppose it made things that bit more competitive and they wanted to beat me on the court even more.

"But now we are all more mature, everyone is very happy for me and supportive," Jenny laughs.

She has the following tips for anyone wanting to pursue tennis professionally:

◊ Work hard: Always turn up to practice prepared to work hard.

◊ Listen: Always listen to your team, your trainers, your coaches, your parents; ultimately how you proceed comes down to you the player as an individual, but it is always good to listen to the advice of those who love and support you.

◊ Be honest: Always be honest with yourself and decide what you want out of the game. Know why you are doing it; you shouldn't do it for anyone else except yourself.

A mother's perspective

Jenny's mother Breeda Claffey (who is also a tennis coach) has always supported her daughter in following her pro-tennis dreams. She has the following advice for other parents of children who are talented in sport:

"You can never really tell when children are younger if they have the ability to become professional tennis players, it is really only when they hit their teens that you will be able to see if they really have what it takes to make it. There are lots of children who are very good at playing tennis, but who may not want it enough.

"When Jenny got to her early teens, that was when her ability became clear, but we never pushed her into it. As a child and in her teens, Jenny was so self-driven and that is what stood out more than anything. At 12 and 13, Jenny would have to train before school, so she would get up herself, make her breakfast and have her bag packed from the night before, all I had to do was bring her to the tennis court. I never I had to drag Jenny out of the bed to go because Jenny always wanted it for herself.

"I think that is one of the ways you can tell if a child has that intrinsic ability to become a professional tennis player; if they are self-driven, if they work hard and never have to be forced to train or take part in competitions and that motivation should always come from the child. If a child has the ability to become a world-class player you cannot force it, you must allow them time to develop.

"Even as a young child, Jenny was determined, strong and ultra competitive and those are some of the qualities that younger people need to have these days to have a chance at making it in the professional tennis world."

*Jenny's Pledge Sports campaign is at pledgesports.org/projects/if-it-is-to-beit-is-up-to-me-following-my-dream


Six days a week:

Breakfast: Gluten-free porridge with almond milk or protein pancakes.

Mid-morning snack after training session one: A protein shake and a banana.

Lunch: Chicken with rice or brown pasta and vegetables.

Mid-afternoon snack after training session two: A smaller portion of what she had for lunch.

Dinner: Steak or chicken with quinoa or brown rice and vegetables.

Jenny on cheats and treats:

"Once a week I will have a cheat meal and it sometimes turns into a cheat day. Ice cream is a big favourite of mine and I do have a sweet tooth so when it's a cheat day I like to indulge. But during the week I will be strict."


* Do nurture your child's love for tennis

You can definitely see when children have a natural flare for the sport; they like it and that is the most important thing, that they are having fun.

* Do get them involved

Tennis Ireland runs a Schools Tennis Initiative, which allows for schools to become more involved in the sport by either incorporating it into their PE classes or running after-schools programmes.

There are also lots of mini tennis programmes to be found in local clubs around the country, where smaller equipment and courts will be used at first to introduce children to the sport.

* Do encourage them to compete

Getting involved in tournaments, both in the mini tennis programmes and other tournaments for older children (from 11-18 years old), is probably the best way for them to go further in the sport.

* Don't force it

Some people will naturally have that flair for the sport; they want to train that bit harder and are competitive by nature. Others want to play tennis for the social aspect. Whatever the direction, this is an individual decision that young people have to make for themselves.

* Don't be put off by misguided perceptions of the sport

Years ago, tennis had a reputation for being a little elitist, but now with the schools and outreach programmes players from all backgrounds have the opportunity to get more involved in the sport. For more information, visit tennisireland.ie.

- John McGahon, professional tennis coach

Jenny's training schedule:

Six days a week:

* Morning tennis session

* Afternoon fitness session

Either in on court tennis specific exercises or in the gym with a mixture of weights, resistance training and cardio

* Evening tennis session

* One yoga session a week.

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