Facilities at DCU will help Ireland play catch-up

 

The fine new indoor facilities at DCU, including clay courts, are the first of their kind in the country, writes Johnny Watterson

NO DOUBT the new playing facilities at Albert College, Glasnevin, will help Ireland play catch-up in terms of producing top players. If taken at its most basic level, there are now facilities in place that were not there before. That must be good. But what must be at the back of the mind of the governing body, Tennis Ireland (TI), is that the public have become more exacting in what they expect from their sports stars in terms of achieving.

Conor Niland's winning of a Challenger event in India is all very encouraging and a great personal triumph for him but it hardly registered across the country. After Beijing's success boxing is in vogue, while golf, through a number of players, continues to redefine what real success means.

The fine new indoor facilities at DCU, including clay courts, are the first of their kind in the country and it is here Tennis Ireland technical director Gary Cahill, and the rest of the sport, are pinning their hopes.

But even Tennis Ireland, in their published historical sweep across the tennis decades in celebration of this centenary year, acknowledge Ireland has been left in the starting blocks as the international game has moved on.

"Ireland has undoubtedly been restricted by a combination of a lack of indoor facilities and the reliance on a single climate-friendly playing surface - the ubiquitous artificial grass," it states.

The self-critical passage goes on: "Equally for many years Tennis Ireland had to rely on the hire of private court facilities to implement elite player development programmes in an environment which did little to help the encouragement of tennis-specific sports science."

Out in DCU younger players now have the chance to reside and train on campus and the results of those programmes will only become known in the years ahead. Indeed the historical perspective published by TI, which gives a flavour of the personalities and events that have defined the sport over 10 decades, serves to highlight how Ireland has slipped compared to those glory years right up to the 1980s.

The story begins in 1908, when representatives of 14 clubs assembled in the XL Café in Grafton Street and decided that an "Irish Lawn Tennis Association" should be formed. Following the foundation of the Irish state, the ILTA was established along independent lines and in a similar way to what were then called "the other dominions".

Ireland's coming out, as it were, took place in 1923, when for the first time, the country played Davis Cup under the Irish banner.

But before that Ireland was awash with talent. James Cecil Parke from Clones was one of the greatest players of his time and, as was expected of gentlemen of the time, also excelled in rugby, golf, cricket and athletics and chess. As it was pre-independence Parke played Davis Cup for Britain and in between times regularly beat some of the biggest names in tennis at the time.

Harry Maunsell, from Glenageary in Dublin, was another enduring name in the 1920s and lent his name to numerous cups in tennis and, if memory serves, hockey too.

Then there was George McVeagh in the 1930s, yet another gentleman player, who was an international in tennis, squash, cricket and hockey. The only current top athlete who comes close to that combination is Bray's world champion boxer Katie Taylor, who also kits out for the Republic of Ireland soccer team.

McVeagh once beat the late "Big" Bill Tilden, the number one player in the world at the time and whose biographer Frank Deford says had no sexual relationships with women at all and only a few with men. Tilden, paradoxically, changed the game from a perceived "sissy" sport into a more robust affair played by athletes at a time when people like film director WC Fields once commented in a film about two brothers, "one's a tennis player, the other's a manly sort of fellow".

The number one Irish player of the 1940s was Cyril Kemp and in the 1950s JD Hackett. Joe, as he was known as, began at six years old and continued playing into his 70s during which time he walked the lawns at Wimbledon and played Davis Cup for Ireland.

The history runs through the 1950s, '60s, '70s and the '80s where Matt Doyle and Seán Sorensen led the Davis Cup team to unprecedented success and ignited some interest around the country, something successive teams have not been able to accomplish.

More recently the 1990s have produced Irish Olympians, Owen Casey, Eoin Collins and Scott Barron. The latter competed in Atlanta in 1996, Collins in Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992, while Casey holds the distinction of having competed in all three.

During those years Yvonne Doyle climbed up the WTA ranking to the 248 slot while Gina Niland and Karen Nugent, before she was hit by illness, cracked the top 500.

Perhaps we always look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, as do most people trundling down the stairs at Fitzwilliam, from where the three-times Wimbledon winner and glamorous Brazilian Maria Bueno looks down. But the history of Irish tennis and those days when Bueno used travel to Dublin are important reminders of where the sport has come from.

The new facilities at DCU will, hopefully, show them where it might go next.