Tennis-mad nomad James McGee looking for big day out in Wimbledon
Castleknock man is staying focused on achieving his goals in the sport loves
Three days before the serious business of qualifying for Wimbledon for the first time in his career, Irish tennis number one James McGee is enjoying the rare delights of domestic familiarity.
His aunt and uncle’s comfortable suburban home in the English commuter town of Guildford may not provide the grandeur of Roger Federer’s luxurious suite close to centre court, but he can’t think of anywhere he would rather be, so close to the biggest moment of his career.
McGee (26), a native of Castleknock describes himself with a wry smile “as a tennis nomad”. For the last nine years, he has lived out of a tennis bag, travelling as cheaply as possible to the next tournament. If it pays a decent cheque and offers the chance to win elusive ranking points so much the better.
He always travels alone without a coach or support, booking his own transport and accommodation, navigating to tennis outposts of the world such as Armenia, Bahrain, Syria and Egypt.
An incredibly friendly and engaging young professional, McGee swapped Belvedere College for Barcelona at 17 and has been on the road ever since. “First and foremost, for me with my tennis, it’s all about a desire to get somewhere and do something with my life. There are so many times where it’s not easy, and I’d love to just be able to hang out with my friends at home, but when you really want something you just have to go after it.”
Loneliness is an occupational hazard for most tennis professionals, even those who enjoy the benefits of large entourages and sponsored lackeys. McGee remains unsponsored, and thus travels alone. “I don’t get lonely, because I suppose after so long I’m used to it. I don’t know any other life. I often think that loneliness is not being happy with the person you’re with, and I’m generally happy with my own company, maybe it’s different after a bad loss, but you have to work through that.”
McGee studied psychology during a stint in college in the United States. This academic training has helped contribute to incredible mental toughness that has helped him survive in a ruthless sporting world. At the age of 17 he travelled to Barcelona to train in an academy. A young Andy Murray was just down the road mastering the unfamiliar feel of the clay courts. Keen to make an early statement on the Continent, McGee pushed himself too hard in training, creating a stress fracture in his hand that put him out of the game for 17 months at a crucial juncture in his young career. He was determined to not give up and returned to Dublin to the place where his game started.
“For me, tennis is my mission and my life, it’s not just a game for me, I was so desperate to get back. I used to sit in Castleknock tennis club and video my movement and watch it back on my computer, or hit a sponge ball, anything really, I just wanted to play.”
The patience paid off for McGee and he eventually was able to enter the professional tour due to two benefactors in 2008. Unfortunately, due to the recession, he found himself with no external funding from 2009. In his desire to stay playing the game professionally, he would play league tennis in Switzerland for small payments, before taking gambles on tournaments he thought he stood a chance of gaining ranking points, or decent prize money. Like a journeyman boxer, he would travel to the next fight in dubious surroundings if it meant he had a chance at one day topping a main bill.
Sometimes, these decisions have backfired. In 2009 McGee found himself alone in Syria, questioning his own normally meticulous organisation. “I had managed to sprain my ankle playing for Ireland in the Davis Cup, but I saw this tournament in Syria, and I saw it was a weak entry list, so even with a sprained ankle I thought I could do something. I arrived in Damascus alone on a delayed flight at 1am without luggage and a match the next morning. I thought what could I do? So I found the hotel which was awful, had some sort of sludge for breakfast, borrowed a racquet and clothes and somehow managed to win three matches. I suppose that’s my life really, dealing with adversity and getting over it.”
Home for McGee now is Barcelona. He misses Dublin, and is hugely grateful to Castleknock tennis club in particular for their support of him, but he has people in Spain “who help out with coaching when they can” and also a physical therapist to take care of a body punished by a relentless schedule. Now ranked 241st in the world, his mission remains clear and constant. “My dream is to be in the top 100 of the players in the world and that’s what drives me every single day.”
McGee’s priority is evidently to improve his tennis game. He only has himself to look after, so divides his day into trying to improve three facets of his sport, mental, technical and physical through a myriad of activities. By the time he returns to his apartment exhausted and completely covered in clay at 7pm, he makes himself some dinner and falls asleep. Girlfriends and a normal social life will have to wait until normal service can resume.
Reaching the qualifiers at Wimbledon was an unexpected bonus for McGee after a sensational performance in a Korean Challenger tournament helped him get to the semi-finals earning enough ranking points to reach the iconic lawns of SW19. “I just scraped into Wimbledon, but there’s no reason why I can’t do well, I have to win three matches and it’s definitely doable, it all starts on Monday [today] for me.”
The more sedate beauty of Wimbledon’s practice courts are far removed from the graft of challenger events that he has frequented, often staying in gritty backpacker hostels to save money when he has to. His own existence on the tour contrasts strongly with the select moneyed elite at the top of the rankings. He bears them no feelings of ill will or resentment, he simply remains respectful of what they have achieved.
“Back in January, I was doing some hitting practice with [Rafael] Nadal. He was nice, but one thing I took out of the encounter was his intense focus, it was off the charts really, and we were only in practice.
For these guys there’s so much at stake, financially and whatever, that it has to be all about business for them.”
In his spare time which is often spent between tournaments in anonymous hotels and airport departure lounges, McGee likes to read autobiographies by people who have succeeded in their life. The subjects aren’t necessarily limited to sport.
He finds inspiration and solace from people who have encountered adversity and chased their dream relentlessly. For McGee he remains intently focused on achieving his goals in the sport for which he has so much passion. “Tennis is one of those things, it’s a lifestyle choice, I have to dedicate everything to it, and be obsessed for this time in my life, but then I can look back and know I gave it everything I had at least.”