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Tennis ace Gráinne O'Neill holds court

Reporter David Medcalf meets Gráinne O'Neill from Blessington, newly appointed to the staff of Tennis Ireland, to talk about her love of tennis, life in Ohio on a sports scholarship and the role of women in sport

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Gráinne O’Neill. Photo: Oisín Keniry

Gráinne O’Neill. Photo: Oisín Keniry

Gráinne O’Neill with fellow tennis players during her time at Ohio State University

Gráinne O’Neill with fellow tennis players during her time at Ohio State University

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Gráinne O’Neill. Photo: Oisín Keniry

Meet Gráinne O'Neill, coming to a tennis club near you sometime soon - if and when Covid-19 restrictions allow. The 26 year old landed her dream job early this year as advocate for women in her chosen sport. But she scarcely had her feet under the desk when lockdown meant that the Tennis Ireland offices in DCU were shut.

So she been easing herself into her role as national co-ordinator for women in tennis by Zoom calls and email rather than face to face. O'Neill is back staying with her parents, Colm and Monica, while the pandemic persists. At least this has given her the opportunity to conduct some useful research, while also allowing her time to meet the press.

O'Neill hails from Blessington, a town very far from being a hotbed of tennis. There is an out-of-town and under-used court at Avon Rí, but certainly no organised opportunity to learn the art of serve-and-volley was offered on her doorstep as a girl. She was a sporty child, O'Neill recalls, from a family which is competitively minded.

She participated in the endless sessions of rounders which kept the kids entertained during summer holidays on the green in the Ashton estate where she grew up. St Mary's primary school promoted Olympic handball, and she enjoyed that too. Gaelic football, camogie, cross-country running, basketball and hockey all featured to greater or lesser extent as O'Neill moved from primary to secondary and up the ranks. The GAA loomed joyfully large in her background, with her folks bringing the family to watch Laois play football on Sundays. Her uncle Liam O'Neill had the honour of serving as president of the association.

But it was tennis, always tennis, which gave her the most pleasure from an early age. There was no particular history of the sport in the family, but when her mother, Monica O'Neill, decided to take up a racket at the club in Naas, it later showed up on the radar of her children. O'Neill reckons she was eight or nine years old when she first stepped on to a court.

More than a decade on, O'Neill pays grateful tribute to the ability of coach John Brady (now on the books at Arklow LTC) to make sessions fun for youngsters. She proved very competitive, toughened up by trading shots with the lads, including her older brother Finnian.

'The tennis took off because I really enjoyed it and holidays were spent at tennis tournaments,' O'Neill recalls of her schoolgirl days. 'My geography of Ireland is based around tennis clubs which hosted those tournaments.' Wicklow Town, Bray and Greystones are all fondly remembered.

Her parents drove to these events, encouraging her to give 100 per cent in her matches, but otherwise exerted no pressure. And they too have extracted a great deal of satisfaction from their own time at the net: 'Tennis is a sport for life,' insists O'Neill. 'Mam still plays and dad (she pauses before hitting on the right word) dabbles.'

When she was growing up, the only time it was permissible to eat dinner in front of the television was when major sporting events were being broadcast. Wimbledon was the most major of the major events, with a full fortnight spent dining on the couch. Her favourite players include Kim Clijsters and the Williams sisters, particularly Venus Williams, whose campaigning to win equal pay for professional female tennis players makes her a 'great' role model. On the men's side, O'Neill has always been a Rafa Nadal fan. Asked to suggest an Irish name to watch out for, she looks forward to seeing how Georgia Dunning will fare on the pro circuit.

Young O'Neill was a force to be reckoned with as a 14 year old - though not in the top 10 elite. She did not hit the higher rankings until she was 16, as she used transition year at school to give her game a makeover. Coaches Mark Carpenter and Jonathan Coulson were both available through her home club at the time to assist her in stepping up a gear. They fostered the big-hitting, hard-serving style which led to a remarkable clean sweep in the 2011 under 18 national championships at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club.

Not only did she beat Sinead Lohan in the singles but O'Neill also came out on top in the girls' doubles and the mixed doubles. It was a feat that made people sit up and take notice - and not only in Ireland. Offers and enquiries came in from colleges in the United States and the champ began to consider a move across the Atlantic if she could land a good scholarship.

The balance between a good education on one hand and exciting sports prospects on the other was carefully weighed up by the family in Ashton. She still cringes at the thought of the homemade YouTube video which was prepared to give American coaches some idea of her potential. Ohio State University decided that they were not content with a video, inviting Gráinne and Monica over to have a look around the campus. The trip included attendance at a football game with some 100,000 spectators at the Horseshoe Stadium. The Irish visitors were impressed and a place on the sports management course was secured.

The campus in Columbus, with its 60,000 students, proved to be a different world for the new arrived undergraduate from Blessington.

'The facilities blew me away,' she says frankly. 'There were six indoor courts and nine outdoor with a mini-stadium.' While football is a big deal at Ohio State, the tennis is also taken very seriously and her time there coincided with an impressive rise up to the top of the ratings. The team - called the Buckeyes - travelled all over the country in pursuit of success, taking in Las Vegas, Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan and Texas.

There is nothing in Ireland to compare with such ferociously demanding and intense competition. O'Neill played hundreds of matches and recommends the experience of a US college to anyone good enough to earn such an opportunity.

'If you love tennis, it's a no brainer. I had a really positive experience over there and they really do look after you.'

She was appointed captain of the Buckeyes in her fourth and final year in Columbus. However, with top class signings arriving from Peru, Venezuela and Japan, she found it hard to hold down a spot on the court at the big events.

O'Neill did not go around with a scowl on her face when others were racking up the victories which made the university the number one college team. But the experience convinced her that there was no career for her as a professional tennis player. Scraping for world ranking points at satellite events in Uzbekistan or Turkey, wondering where the price of the next flight would come from, was not for her.

She stayed in Ohio coaching for a year, before landing home in County Wicklow in the summer of 2017 with her degree and no particular job in mind. O'Neill found herself stacking shelves at the local SuperValu, with some coaching assignments on the side. Then the relevance of her degree was acknowledged when the sports photography firm Inpho took her on as an administrator, setting up assignments and keeping the books. She was happy at the Inpho office on Mespil Road in Dublin but could not resist putting in an application to Tennis Ireland.

In line with the rest of Irish sport, it was looking for someone to implement the Women in Sport Policy.

While tennis has plenty of female involvement, men are in the majority when it comes to filling top coaching and official positions. O'Neill contrasts this situation with the tennis scene at Ohio State where the head of department is a woman and the head coach is a woman.

She took up her position at Tennis Ireland in February, with the prospect of setting about an action plan while attending plenty of committee meetings. Instead, the pandemic intervened and O'Neill has been residing with her parents, who moved recently to County Wexford. And all the while, she remains loyal to her first love, playing tennis with the club where she was first introduced to the sport. The 'craic' is good at Naas, not least because she has the companionship of her sister, Eimear. The younger sibling is better known as a volleyball international but is no slouch around the court.

'I will continue playing as long as I can,' vows O'Neill, who picked up a national indoor doubles title at Christmas. 'Tennis has given me an education and a career.'

Online Editors