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Tennis Ireland Paving The Way For All Types Of Athletes

tennis ireland

“What we always try and say, our philosophy would be to try and give people a better life through tennis,” Richard Fahey, CEO Tennis Ireland.

In these somewhat precarious times, a half-hour spent chatting to Richard Fahey on a sprightly Wednesday morning is enough to make anyone forget the worries and the stresses that come with a pandemic. 

By the end of the conversation, you are left yearning to pick up a racket only to remember that you can’t visit the court just yet.

Whilst the sport is a worldwide phenomenon encompassing global superstars such as Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Andy Murray to name just a few, in Ireland, it’s a moderately small community but it is growing.

Not only is the sport growing in terms of numbers playing but also how Ireland is being viewed worldwide as a tennis nation with over 30,000 players participating in tournaments across the island in 2019, with the AIG Irish Open broadcast to over 180,000 people on TG4.

“In terms of what’s happened this year with the virus, it’s obviously had an impact on us but for the last three years, we’ve seen significant growth in terms of members,” Fahey told Pundit Arena.

“As well as that, a big strategic focus for me over the last three years has been around increasing competition and getting more people playing competitively and we’ve done quite well. We’ve quite a comprehensive calendar for juniors, for adults and then for veteran players as well.

“So if you take 2019, we had 216 sanctioned tournaments which saw a 15 per cent increase on the previous year. There were 35,500 entries into those events so it was very, very good and we had planned this year for a further 10 per cent growth on that.

“Obviously Covid-19 has got in the way, but we think once we get to phase four and five of the government’s road map we’ll be back up and running tournaments and we think that because people haven’t been able to play, they’ll be busting a gut to get back.

“In 2019, we ran six international junior events and we also hosted a Four Nations seniors tournament and then we had the Irish Open as well. There was a lot of work done internationally last year, it was planned for this year but obviously that’s been disrupted for the moment.

“But the AIG Irish Open last year, a men’s and ladies event, an ITF World Tour [International Tennis Federation] event which was broadcast live on TG4 and had 180,000 viewers on it. While it is a relatively small community, we have 40,000 players, about 182 affiliated clubs and probably another 25 clubs out there who haven’t affiliated for whatever reason but we’ve got a very active community.”

Whilst the sport is physically demanding with very little hiding places, it’s very much a lifelong sport, something that Fahey is keen to get across. Unlike many other sports in Ireland, numbers participating in tennis, on a social level, tend to be over the age of 18 because they see it for what it is.

However, that is no reflection on the number of children playing but rather the number of people who have taken up tennis as a way to keep fit, stay healthy and remain active.

“We did a survey a few years ago as part of our strategy and we interviewed about 1000 people as part of our survey and on average those people who play tennis do so twice a week for about an hour each time, so you are making a contribution to the physical health and well-being of the nation as well.

“I think the other thing about our sport is that it is a lifelong sport, people play tennis from five years of age up to 85 years of age. Once people get into playing tennis, they tend to play it for life. They might drop out in their teenage years but they come back. Of our membership, two-thirds are over 18.

“If you were to compare that to GAA, Rugby or Soccer, it would be the opposite. It shows we’re a lifelong sport.”

It may come as no surprise that gender diversity in tennis is among the top sports in Ireland with playing numbers “pretty much” a 50/50 balance, however, Fahey admits that more can be done to increase female participation in terms of coaching and governance, hence the decision to appoint Grainne O’Neill as National Coordinator for Women in Tennis.

However, with Tennis Ireland not facing the same issues many other sports are in terms of gender diversity, this has afforded them the opportunity to increase participation levels among those with disabilities.

“We’ve got a programme called ‘Enjoy Tennis’ which is rolled out around the country, we’re working with 13 disability groups to try and encourage people with disabilities to get involved in playing tennis.

“It’s not really a focus on disability but more a focus on ability. Obviously, wheelchair tennis has its own international circuit but we hosted a World Visually Impaired Tennis Championship in 2018 and we sent a team to the World Championships last year and we’ve won medals so we’ve been doing well in that area.

“We’d be seen in Sport Ireland as one of the top three sports that is focused in that area. Across the pan-disability area, not just focusing on one area like wheelchair tennis, we’ve got programmes for visually impaired as well as Autism so from that point of view it’s a key focus for us.

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We’ve highlighted the growth of the sport and the great work it does within Irish communities but like every other sporting body, Tennis Ireland faces huge challenges going forward.

The Irish weather for one.

Whilst recent days paint another picture, the unpredictability of our inclement weather can often work against the tennis community due to a lack of indoor facilities.

Clay courts are another issue. While 60 per cent of international tennis tournaments take place on clay, the Irish weather doesn’t allow for such courts to be put in place.

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“I am extremely grateful for the opportunities, successes and memories that tennis has given me. But most of all I am grateful for the girls that I have shared, and am continuing to share all of those wonderful experiences with. When I was younger I spent the summers at my local tennis club in Claremorris, playing for hours on end with the girls that have taught me everything sport is about. We trained hard, pushed each other and made sure to do it all with a smile on our faces. These girls were the first to congratulate me on a good day, and pick me up after a tough one. They always believed in me and inspired me to dream big.” ~Shauna Heffernan~ #WomenInSportIRE @20×20.ie #CantSeeCantBe #tennis

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“We have a very strong community that play and a very passionate community of players. If you speak to our clubs, obviously, facilities are a big part of it. We’ve worked very closely with our clubs in term of funding through the Sports Capital Programme.

“So we’re trying to help clubs develop their facilities and the key area within that is around things like floodlights and clay courts. Clay courts are a big area because if you take it that 60 per cent of all the international tournaments are held on clay, we’ve only a tiny percentage of them.”

In terms of those trying to make a living out of the sport, Fahey admits that unless you reach the top 50 in the world, it’s difficult to make a sustainable living playing tennis.

What it does offer the brightest young talent in Ireland though is an opportunity to gain a free education at a top US college before deciding whether the life of a professional tennis player is something they wish to pursue.

“The transition from junior to professional level is a big jump.

“A lot of our players, when they leave the junior ranks they’re lucky enough to go and get a scholarship to the States, we’ve 15 or 20 players who have gone. We feel that that is a realistic pathway for the vast majority of these players. 

“That is one of the real challenges we have, we don’t have the resources, the financial resources to fully fund that player. To be honest with you, very few federations have that and very few federations do that. Even the LTA [British Tennis] with all their millions, they don’t fully fund players to go off on the professional tour. 

“The reality is that it is an expensive sport. There’s a significant amount of travel. We have introduced a scheme, the Team Ireland Tennis Programme which is modelled on the Team Ireland Golf Programme where we’re looking at giving some financial support and non-financial support to some of the players and we’re just in the middle of that process at the moment.

“But that is a big challenge, a big challenge for us, a big challenge for our players. We’d love to be in a position to say ‘there’s €100,000, go and give it your best shot’ but we’re not in a position to do that and there’s no point pretending that we are because we’re not. It’s just the way that the sport is governed internationally, it makes it very difficult for players to breakthrough. You’d want to be in the top 50 players in the world to be making decent money.”

The other challenge is that our best tennis players simply have to leave Ireland in order to maximise their potential. As Fahey puts it, they need sparring partners that are better than them if they are to progress, in his own words, it’s no different to young soccer players leaving Ireland for pastures new, something that is hard to argue against.

For sports like golf, you don’t need sparring partners, you’re playing against the course, doing your own practice. I think that has helped the Irish golfers do so well. But for a sport like tennis, similar to boxing, you need to be sparring with people who are, generally, better than you. 

“If you’ve got a number one or number two player in the country that’s training here full-time, who is he or she going to spar with? That’s a real challenge for us. If those players plan on going on the tour full-time, they need to go abroad. 

“I think from an Irish point of view, for the vast majority of underage players, we can do something for them here, but, particularly if they want to go onto the tour straight after juniors, they need to go abroad. Andy Murray was the same, he went to Spain because that was the only way to do it.”

In conclusion, whether you view tennis as a means of staying healthy or a competitive urge, the team in Ireland are here to facilitate either-or.

“What we always try and say, our philosophy would be to try and give people a better life through tennis.

“For a club player, that is the social aspect of that, a bit of fitness, health, their mental health, so on and so forth, but if you’ve got a talented player at underage level, yes they can train, it’s good for their health, they get to meet people from a social point of view, they get to experience travel, they learn how to be independent, how to set goals, all those things.

“From an educational point of view, however, when they’re 17, 18, they go to college in the States if they’re good enough, they’ll get a scholarship. They’ll get to train in a really professional environment, play against players that they won’t get to play against here, and they’ll also have access to some really good competition.

“When you’re 21, 22, you can make an informed decision about whether you’re good enough to go on the pro tour or whether you need to say ‘right, I’ve got my degree, I think I just need to go into business and I’ll play tennis at a reasonably high level.'”

Whether it’s the professional or the amateur game, it’s clear that “a reasonably high level” very much exists in Ireland.

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Richard Fahey was speaking as part of our new series, ‘Showcase your Sport’, in association with the Irish Federation of Sport, in which we will be giving you a thorough insight into some of the most fascinating sports we have in Ireland.

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