Monday 19 March 2018

Racquets: Rising star O'Brien reaping rewards of elite Belgian set-up

Paddy Hickey

THE renowned Belgian tennis production line, which has churned out women's world No 1s such as Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, is set to provide the Irish female set-up with a boost in the near future.

Promising Irish teenager Niamh O'Brien has been living in Belgium for the last five years, and she is already reaping the rewards of its tennis system.

O'Brien, who hails from Clonskeagh in Dublin, took an interest in tennis from an early age after being introduced to the sport by her mother, and participated in a number of underage tournaments in this country.

But it was only after her family moved to Brussels five years ago, following her father's work transfer to the Belgian capital, that the tennis career of the now 14-year-old really started to take off.

O'Brien has played in five Tennis Europe Junior Circuit events, and in her most recent outing -- in Luxembourg last month -- she qualified for the main draw for the first time.

"The plan is for me to play four Tennis Europe U-16 tournaments in the early part of next year,and then to move on to about 10 ITF U-18 tournaments," she said. "My coach thinks I am up to it, and he feels that it will be very good experience to play tennis at U-18 level.

"In the longer term, I would love to play tennis professionally and to represent Ireland in the Fed Cup."

Unsurprisingly, O'Brien is full of praise for the tennis set-up in Belgium, and already her favourite court surface is clay.

"When I first came to Belgium at the age of nine, I hadn't a word of French," she said. "The first year was very hard, but playing tennis helped me to settle in and be accepted.

"The set-up here is very good. There is a large number of clubs, all with indoor courts, as tennis is so popular. This ensures a very large pool of players in contrast to the relatively small number of players that I used to meet in Dublin.

"In addition, there are a lot of tournaments -- especially during the school holidays.

"My training is organised as part of the BATD (Belgium Association for Tennis Development).

"Belgian players such as Kristof Vliegen, Olivier Rochus (who recently defeated 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro), (his brother) Christophe Rochus, Yanina Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens are among the players who have been trained as part of the BATD initiative," she added.

In squash, 10-time Irish national champion Willie Hosey is set to take part in the premier domestic competition this weekend for the first time since 2002.

The Canada-based Carlow native won his first title back in 1983, and was once placed as high as No 17 in the world rankings.

Galway's John Rooney heads the men's seedings, with Banbridge's Madeline Perry the women's counterpart in the Fitzwilliam event, which runs from tomorrow to Sunday. The biggest threats to Rooney and Perry are Carlow's Arthur Gaskin and Sligo's Aisling Blake, respectively.

Irish Independent

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