Long hard slog up the ranks

 

IT wasn't the homecoming he had wanted. It wasn't just the Irish title but the scalp that Derek Ryan had returned to Dublin for a couple of weeks before Christmas. But as he wandered around the corridors of Fitzwilliam the chance to exorcise the ghost of last year's final was fast disappearing. Willie Hosey was being beaten - but in the wrong round and by the wrong man.

Hosey had come back from the dead to dismantle Ryan's game 12 months earlier. The Carlowman had fought his way back from 2-0 down to take his 10th Irish crown, and Ryan's hopes of revenge, of learning the claim to be the Irish number one on court rather than by default, were being ended by Stevie Richardson in the semi-finals.

The next day Ryan took the title but it was an unsatisfactory end to a good year for the 26-year-old from Dun Laoghaire. A few days later his elevation to one of the world's top 20 players was confirmed by squash's international governing body, but even this was a disappointment as Ryan was ranked 20th rather than 16th which would have meant automatic entry and a better draw in all of the biggest events on the tour.

For years the Irish number one had been telling anyone who would listen back at home that he had what it takes to make his name on the international circuit but now, after a string of good performances in New York, Karachi and Bombay over the past eight months or so, the promises are beginning to ring true.

His attention remains fixed on joining the world's top 10 where tennis players make millions and squash players earn a comfortable living. If it doesn't happen this year he'll be disappointed, but he knows that eventually someone is going to have to make way for his arrival.

"My expectations are very high now. My results have shown how close I am getting to the top 10 and I'm so hungry to achieve things on the tour. I've got the belief I didn't have a couple of years ago, the belief you earn from hard work in training and taking knocks out on court. I know that I'll still have to take the knocks but I, know that there's some big wins in store for me as well," he says.

After a couple of false starts those expectations began to rise at the end of last season at the Tournament of Champions in New York. On a court constructed from glass in the middle of Grand Central Station, he beat Zarak Jahan and Simon Parke, ranked 10th and seventh in the world respectively, to reach the quarter-finals of a major event for the first time.

They were sweet victories for a man who had gained a reputation on the tour for starting strongly but giving up the ghost under pressure and they salvaged a season that had, after his first really hard summer's preparation, promised so much.

"After my third year away in Manchester I started to get the odd result but I eventually heard that people were saying that I was a threat but if I was kept on court long enough I'd fold because I wasn't strong enough. I was just viewed as someone who beat peopled for a game and a half but then I'd run out of steam and they would run all over me.

"At that stage I decided that I really wanted to give the whole thing a serious go. I felt I was close to being able to take on the best players and I wanted to see how good I could become. I approached Chris McManus (formerly the Scottish number one and now a full-time coach based in Rochdale) and he said if I was really prepared to put, in the work he would take me on.

Work, he readily admits now, had been conspicuously absent during the early days of his professional career. Ryan studied accountancy for a couple of years before deciding on making the leap to playing full-time and, when he did, he based himself in Manchester where Hosey and northerner Jeffrey Hearst had both previously played.

The South African-born Craig Van Der Wath offered him a place to stay and Ryan took on what might have been a somewhat more arduous lifestyle. "Craig would get up every morning at some ridiculous time and head off to the club which was just around the corner to start training by about 8.30. By the time I got there at half past 11 he had already done one session and, then I would just go on court to knock around with someone because, just like when I was a kid, I loved playing but hated doing any sort of hard physical training."

In fact, Ryan's older brother Noel had been the one who trained hard. Noel was the Irish number one by the time he was 19. A constant companion, rival and friend of Derek's through their teenage years, Noel had always seemed the more likely to pursue a professional career until a dramatic collapse in confidence ended his career.

"We played together in the European Team Championships in June 1988, which was when I got my first cap (he now has 72). He lost a couple of matches 10-8, 10-9 in the fifth and that seemed to dent his confidence. After than we went to Germany to play tournaments for the summer but he just seemed to find the results harder and harder to get. From there on he went straight downhill until we were at home for Christmas and he tried to lift a Coke bottle and it wobbled all over the place.

"He told us he been getting pain in his hand and then all the difficulties he had began to pour out. He started going to specialists but nobody could find anything wrong with him and by the end of that season he could barely get his place on a Leinster division five or six league team. In 12 months he had gone from being the Irish number one to not being able to hold a racket properly."

Derek was devastated by the turn of events but it had little effect on his desire to play professionally at some stage. "I've always been a great believer in the saying you only live once. There was never a point where I said I'm good enough to do well at this. But I really did want to just give it a go and see how I got on, and once I got to a certain level I knew I had to go away if I was going to keep improving."

With perhaps a little more faith in his own ability than was justified at the time he joined Van Der Wath at the Manchester Northern in 1990, he soon began to learn the hard way about the hazards of the professional game.

"I wasn't making any money apart from leagues," he recalls. "I'd go away to some English event for a weekend and maybe make £50 before I paid my expenses. I agreed to [clay in one league, the Yorkshire League, for free because they said there was no money and I needed the matches.

"But I was supposed to get £60 a match from Manchester Northern for playing in the North West Counties. They seemed to give all of the money to the best players, though, and as I wasn't confident enough to be pushy I ended up getting £200 just before I came home for Christmas. By that stage I'd played 13 matches.

"They kept telling me that the money was just about to come through but it was the following October before I got another cheque and when the fella at the club gave it to me he said he was sorry but that this was all there was. I looked at it and it was for another £200 when they owed me for about 30 matches and I just said what is this? - well maybe a bit more powerful than that - and I really, wanted to rip the cheque up but I couldn't, I needed the money so badly."

THESE days Ryan looks back at the period as part of a long and hard apprenticeship. "For the first couple of years I was making a fairly substantial loss and having to borrow money from home which hurt, and when I started to get a bit better things didn't get much better because I had the expense of starting to travel to play away."

Now the cost of his coaching is a major outgoing but it is the influence of McManus which he views as his greatest education, and it is this training and his own slightly more mature commitment to it which he credits with his dramatic improvement in 1995.

"The first summer with Chris was unbelievably hard, but I felt great after it. He kept saying `don't be surprised if it all takes a while to start happening for you.' I remember he kept saying that over and over but I thought `yeah sure, it's going to happen alright.'

"It didn't, though, because for the next couple of months I played terribly. I was really fit, able to run all day, but terrible. I went out early in a load of tournaments, lost in the nationals to Willie and, until New York last June, my season just seemed to have fallen apart. But the fact is that Chris knew he had a lot more to teach me and I thought that II already knew it all."

Since then, however, things have been very different for the Dubliner with his second summer in Rochdale helping him to victories over Del Harris, Peter Nicol and Mark Chaloner (all top 10 players) and making him the short straw for the big names in tournament draws.

"Pakistan, where I made the semis of a big event for the first time (and picked up a cheque for about $3,000, by far the biggest of his career), overshadowed everything for me so far. Even going out on court against Jansher Khan (the long-time world number one) in front of his home crowd I was thinking `hey, who knows, this guy could have a really off-day and I could play well and I'll win.'

"My whole attitude to the game has changed - that's partly down to a couple of sports psychologists I've done some work with but a lot of it is just down to the fact that I'm beginning to believe in what I'm capable of and if I can beat the world number four then why not the number one.

"The news that I got sponsorship with Ericsson came just around that time as well which was great, not just for the money, but because I had somebody behind me who felt I was worth putting money into."

Now Ryan goes into 1996 convinced that a place in the top 10 is only a matter of months away. But given the rigours of the game and the toll it takes on the joints, there is always the possibility that, at 26, he has little time to play at the top.

But Ryan does not accept this: "As long as I don't get injured - and, touch wood, I've been lucky so far - I still feel I have a lot of miles left on the clock. I was lazy all those years when other players were working themselves hard. Now, maybe with luck, I have six or even seven years left in me and some of those could be very big years for me, very big years."