My Sporting Passion: Ardal O’Hanlon on how tennis changed his life
Comedian and actor is really looking forward to getting the chance to play tennis again
Ardal O’Hanlon: “Tennis makes you think forwards instead of backwards. It has really made me concentrate on the next point I want to make or the next bit of material I want to get to or the next joke I want to tell. I put that down to playing tennis.” File photograph: Alan Betson
I am counting down the days until next Monday because that’s the day I can play tennis again.
I’m like a little boy most days when I know I have a game. I skip out of the house, I almost trip over myself to get down to the club. I love it that much. I know I’m prone to exaggeration in many things and you have to take what I say with a pinch of salt but it really is going to be the highlight of my week when it comes back. I just love it.
I was always mad about sport from an early age. I would have played soccer on the street, outside the house in Carrickmacross. Those would be [among] my earliest memories, playing with the neighbours for eight, nine hours in the summer. You’d go from one game to the next, coming home and telling your father the score was 28-all.
Then in my mid-20s I played football with my team in Dublin called Orwell FC. That was fantastic. I was never particularly fit in those days, I was carving out a career in comedy and the lifestyle that entailed didn’t really chime with the football. But I just loved it.
It was something I always felt I was quite good at. Just something I felt quite comfortable doing, quite confident. I wasn’t confident doing my job or in social situations but on a football field, I was always very comfortable.
I always felt I knew what I was doing. Even though I never played at a particularly high level or anything, I felt I knew my way around a football pitch. I loved the beauty of it and the creativity of it.
I kept the football up as long as I could, up until my mid-40s when injuries just became too big a part of it. Every time you’d go out you’d pull a muscle or hurt your groin or something like that. The players were getting younger and younger and you just couldn’t keep up with the pace of it. In your head you still thought you could run the show but it just doesn’t work out like that.
I discovered tennis then at the age of about 45. I was reasonably well co-ordinated and it turned out just to be a game that suited me. I just fell for it. I had dabbled with golf but I didn’t have the patience for it.
I hope this doesn’t sound like I am overstating it but I would say that tennis changed my life
Tennis just suited me. The club I play with is just around the corner from me, five minutes away. You’re in and out in a couple of hours. You’re back at your desk or back in front of the television – it’s not a whole day like golf is. There’s no great planning involved.
But I had a bit of an Indian summer as a footballer. I was away working in the Caribbean on a drama for the BBC for a few summers. And I had quit playing football, hadn’t played it for a few years at this point. But there was a regular game on a Tuesday night out there, the crew against the locals. I was in decent enough physical shape – mostly because of tennis – so I said, ‘Ah look, sure, I’ll give it a go’.
There was also the other thing which I kind of knew but I didn’t acknowledge at the time which was, I was the lead actor in the show and basically nobody was allowed to tackle me. So as a result, I played in these Tuesday night games and I came away thinking I was brilliant. I had all this space opening up in front of me and I was spraying the ball around the place, I was ghosting into the box and volleying home winners. I was delighted with myself.
When I came back to Ireland at the end of the summer, I got it into my head that I was fine to go and play again. I was going to myself, ‘I can hack this’. So I went up to UCD and played in a game of five-a-side. And within five minutes, I had absolutely demolished my groin region.
My whole abdominal muscle area was in bits. It was frightening how bad it was. It was total hubris to think I could do it and in the end I couldn’t walk properly for about six months. That was very sobering.
I absolutely loved football and I really missed it. It was terrible when it ended. I think I probably cried the day I decided I wasn’t going to play anymore. It’s a milestone in a person’s life when it suddenly dawns on you that you can’t play anymore. It’s probably the first big time in a person’s life when they realise that age is catching up with them. I needed something to replace it.
If I didn’t have tennis, I would be quite depressed about not being able to play football. But luckily I have. I hope this doesn’t sound like I am overstating it but I would say that tennis changed my life.
Okay, that’s probably the wrong phrasing of it – it certainly improved my life, no question. I was always prone to working very hard, always being on the road, always liking to keep busy. And when I wasn’t doing that, I would always be socialising at home or whatever.
Work stuff and family stuff and health stuff and the existential stuff – all that stuff just disappears
There was something terribly missing in my life. It became clear fairly quickly that something like tennis was it. It was something that was very healthy, it was something that was very good for your mind as much as anything else. Every sport will give you that kind of escapism.
When I was playing football, the best part of it was escapism. When you were out on the field, you didn’t think about anything else. You had one objective and that was to put the ball in the net and that was it. It was very simple. People who scoff at sport or who don’t really get it miss that. Because this is so valuable, having a place where all your cares disappear.
And I find it now out on the tennis court, when you’ve got a nice rhythm going. It doesn’t happen often but when it does and you have it going and the mind and body are in harmony, you’re not preoccupied with the things that would normally preoccupy you. Work stuff and family stuff and health stuff and the existential stuff – all that stuff just disappears. That is a type of pure joy that I don’t think you get from other things in life.
But I get more out of it than that. It makes me think differently off the court. If you have a bad shot in tennis, you can remedy that immediately. You can very quickly correct your mistakes. A book that a lot of people namecheck is The Inner Game of Tennis. And a lot of people will also cite that book as a great book for life generally. It’s all about being able to put things behind you and stay in the moment.
That sort of thing was a great help to me in terms of my career. If I was doing a live show and there was a line that I stumbled over or I lost concentration for a few moments, in the past that would have knocked me out of my stride. Now it doesn’t.
Tennis makes you think forwards instead of backwards. It has really made me concentrate on the next point I want to make or the next bit of material I want to get to or the next joke I want to tell. I put that down to playing tennis.
A one-handed backhand down the line – it wouldn’t matter of you lost 6-0, 6-0 as long as you managed two or three of those in an hour
It has kind of rooted me to where I live here in Dublin as well. It’s something that I would aim to play three or four nights a week. I would sacrifice work for tennis – there would be certain gigs I wouldn’t take or TV appearances or whatever that I would be offered and I will go, ‘No, I have a match on Thursday night’.
With football, I would have always wanted to win, in a demented way. Whereas with tennis, it’s slightly different. I still really want to win and I am very, very competitive. But I do find myself at times never wanting a rally to end.
If a rally is good and both players are stretching each other, it’s almost better to keep the rally going than to win the point. The other thing is, a good shot will give you the most tremendous satisfaction. A one-handed backhand down the line – it wouldn’t matter of you lost 6-0, 6-0 as long as you managed two or three of those in an hour.
You anticipate the tennis match during the day. It’s something you go to when you’re bogged down in a bit of work or a bit of family stuff or something. You look forward to it. Then when you’re out there, it’s pure escapism.
And then when it’s over, I’ll review it. I’ll be in the bath or in bed or even the next morning and I will be literally going through it, shot-by-shot. All the great shots you hit, all the mistakes you made, the things you could do better the next day. All of that.
It’s all part of the attraction.