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From Grand Slam players to Olympic ice queens -- meet Ireland's future sports stars. . .

Irish tennis player Louk Sorensen may want to bin his Eurorail pass and pay somebody else to carry his racket bag for a change after his stunning win at the Australian Open.

The 25-year-old, Stuttgart-based player made Irish sporting history in the early hours of yesterday morning when he won his first round game in Melbourne.

He became the first tennis player from this country to win a Grand Slam match in the modern era by beating Chinese Taipei's Yen-Hsun Lu in four sets.

The last Irishman to even play in a Grand-Slam match was Louk's father, Corkman Sean Sorensen, at Wimbledon in 1980.

And whatever happens next (Sorensen Jnr was slated to face the giant American John Isner in the second round in the early hours of this morning), the young Irishman has already taken a giant stride forward in his career.

Ranked at 284th in the world before the Aussie Open, Sorensen has been playing mostly third-tier tennis in the German national league.

Held back by a series of injuries, Sorensen has been working hard to simply pay the bills, often travelling by train to play with other young hopefuls in regional Challenger or Futures tournaments that are a world away from the glamour of Wimbledon or Roland Garros.

At the very top level of international sport, the gap between the high earners and the journeymen is huge.

Padraig Harrington's career earnings to date stand around the €30m mark -- Louk Sorensen is often competing in tournaments where the entire prize pot is worth less than €40,000.

Where top tennis players like Roger Federer travel to tournaments by private jet, at the lower level it is very much a case of pay for your own train tickets, stay in cheap hotels and carry your own bag.

Sorensen's run at the Australian Open, coming through the tough qualifying rounds to win a first round game, will not change his life overnight.

By winning a first-round match in Melbourne, he will have earned in the region of €30,000.

However, money apart, Des Allen of Tennis Ireland (the governing body for the sport in this country) says Melbourne will make a big difference in his career.

"Louk has already gone from being ranked just inside the top 300 to the mid-150s. We will know his exact ranking after the tournament finishes," says Allen.

"It's already elevated him to a different level. His new ranking will make a big difference in the tournaments he plays in and the career opportunities that will come his way.

'He has had problems with injuries in recent years. He actually had to pull out of the qualifying rounds for Wimbledon in 2008 with a stomach muscle injury when he was going very well. But he has stayed focused and worked very hard and it looks like that is behind him now.

"Everybody is delighted with the success Louk has had. He's a shy, unassuming lad who is totally focused on tennis.

"He has worked very hard for this and had a lot of support from his family; we can all be very proud of him".

It has never been harder to break through to the top level in any sport for talented young Irish people, especially in individual sports like tennis or the incredibly expensive world of motor racing.

Waterford's Craig Breen is just 19 but has already established himself as one of the most promising young drivers on the international rallying scene. Craig, who is in Monte Carlo at the moment, working as support for an Irish driver competing in the principalities' legendary mountain rally, has had to depend on the financial support and belief of his father Ray (who runs a small engineering company in Waterford) as he attempts to break through.

"I have a deal with my father; he is supporting me right now until I can establish myself and the money starts coming the other way," says Craig. "We have just bought a Ford Fiesta rally car that has cost us €300,000 and every time I drive, it costs us around 15 to 20 thousand euros.

"I'll be competing in around 12 to 15 events in the British Rally Championship and in the Irish Tarmac Championship this year alone, so the money adds up".

Craig believes he has two or possibly three years to make the breakthrough and earn a big contract with a major works team.

There is no doubting his great talent and almost scary determination, even at 19 years of age.

But at the level he wants to compete at, the difference between winning a very lucrative and successful career or retiring at 22 can come down to tenths of a second or a missed sponsorship deal.

"You can't really think about the money," he says.

"It's always there in the background but all I can do is train as hard as I can and compete to the best of my ability. I have the chance, it's up to me to take it."

It's a harsh environment and especially so if you come from a small country like Ireland where the focus has always been on team sports like rugby and football.

But as Louk Sorensen was celebrating his Melbourne success with an energy drink yesterday, two young Irish women were also reflecting on making history at the weekend.

Ireland will be represented for the first time at the Winter Olympics in the Women's Bobsleigh competition in Vancouver next month, thanks to pilot Aoife Hoey and brakewoman Leona Byrne.

The bobsleigh team train mostly on fitness and stamina at home, compete in Europe and the US, and train for bobsledding at winter training camps.

Their great performance in St Moritz at the weekend ensured a starting place in Vancouver. Aoife Hoey hails from Laois, a county which, even with the recent cold weather we have had, is not renowned for its Alpine peaks and sweeping bobsleigh runs.

"I think we've done phenomenally well based on the amount of effort and time, considering we are a very small team," says Aoife.

They may be competing on tiny budgets and often with only their own commitment and determination (and families) to keep them going.

But a new generation of young Irish sportspeople like Louk Sorensen, Craig Breen and Aoife Hoey are showing that we may have underestimated our Celtic Cubs.

Irish Independent