Sam Barry’s battles behind the baseline show sport at its most lonely
A documentary about the Irish tennis player shows just how isolated the tour can be
Sam Barry: “The dream is to become number one in the world, to win Grand Slams and stuff. The reality is I’ve got to be top-100 before I can even start talking about that.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
There is a line in the Andre Agassi autobiography Open where he says that of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement. Which to me always sounded like a slight exaggeration.
It must be two months now since I was walking down Venice Beach in Los Angeles not long after sunrise when this solitary figure came running towards me. Half jet-lagged, half blinded by the light, it was only after he’d ran past that it dawned on me who it was. Michael Conlan.
Most professional boxers could consider their pre-bout training camps as a form of solitary confinement. Even with the company of coaches and sparring partners, large parts of the day can be spent alone, staring down at their phone. Or in Conlan’s case, far away from family and friends on the west coast of America. It sounds nice but Jack Kerouac didn’t call Los Angeles the lonesome town for nothing.
Two months on and Conlan now gets some release, fighting overnight at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago against Mexican journeyman Alfredo Chanez. It’s only Conlan’s second professional fight and then after another short break he will go close to solitary confinement again.
Most individual sports can feel that – especially for athletes, like my summer in Los Altos, 25 years ago already, trying to get fit and healthy again so as not to lose a college scholarship, too lonesome to even call home.
So Agassi’s claims about the tennis, especially on the professional circuit, sounded more selfish than honest: “If I must play tennis, the loneliest sport, then I’m sure as hell going to surround myself with as many people as I can off the court,” he wrote. “How else could I do it? I spent my childhood in an isolation chamber, my teen years in a torture chamber.”
All sense of exaggeration, however, is now lost having just viewed Behind the Baseline, which for the past two years followed Limerick tennis player Sam Barry and has resulted in quite possibly the loneliest ever Irish sporting documentary.
Barry turned professional in 2011, after a prodigious underage career where he became the first Irish player to compete in all four junior Grand Slam events. He moved to the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris at age 12, living alone until age 15, then spent a couple of years in the DCU, and at 21 became the youngest Irish winner of a professional tennis tournament.
Now aged 25, he is still out on that lonesome circuit trying to make a name for himself, reach that first senior Grand Slam. Behind the Baseline doesn’t hold out much hope. He’s on the road from between 40 to 45 weeks of the year, not because he wants to but needs to. There is no four-year Olympic cycle, no high-performance funding from Sport Ireland, and no way could he base himself in Ireland.
This week Barry is in Kazakhstan, next week Uzbekistan. (Or maybe the other way round?). He is currently ranked 404 in the world, dropping back from his career high of 255 at the end of 2016, after a rocky start to the year. Last year he was two places away from Wimbledon, six from the US Open, and one win away from Australia.
He’d aimed to make the qualifiers for the French Open at Roland Garros, but that slipped away weeks ago. Current Irish number one James McGee, who lives a similarly solitary existence, lost his first qualifier.
Behind the Baseline, deftly filmed by Craig Speer, starts out in January 2015 when Barry moves back to Paris to work with Romain Jurd; coach, cook, psychologist, friend.
“The dream is to become number one in the world,” says Barry, “to win Grand Slams and stuff. The reality is I’ve got to be top-100 before I can even start talking about that.
“And spending time on your own on the road is definitely the hardest thing about the game. No doubt about it. It is incredibly lonely. Your aim is to play 35 tournaments a year, and you become you’re ranking, your number.”
Barry doesn’t disguise the fact he comes from a relatively privileged background, the tennis kid growing up on the Ennis Road in Limerick, but that doesn’t mean his family can pour the additional money into his career that might help make the difference. At one event, he wins €144.46 in prize money; most of the time the prize money won’t even cover his hotel bill.
“It’s tough to catch a cruise ship if you’re in a dinghy, and that’s what I’ve got. I can afford €50-60,000 a year, but you need to double that to make top 60 in the world . . . These things are nonsensical in terms of trying to earn a living.”
There are three tiers to the professional game: those ranked outside the top 300 play the Future’s Tour, “week in, week out”, to break into the top 300-80; they get to play on the Challenger Tour; only when you’re into the top 80 are you on the ATP tour.
By the summer of 2015 he’d dropped to 425, breaks with his French coach, and moves to Belgium, to work with Kristof Vliegen. Most of the time the small victories are lost in the countless defeats, and he’s back on the road again: “And not knowing you’re next move is a pretty common enough place. I’m my own agent, my own secretary . . .”
There’s a scene where Barry is invited through his sponsors to play at the Dubai Duty Free tournament, where he gets to watch Novak Djokovic practice, surrounded by “his little army of people running around picking up balls, analysing every step he takes.”
Barry returns to his lonely hotel room, where “most of the time you’re closing the blinds rather than opening them”, and tries to keep his dream alive, knowing nobody is telling him to do this, trying to find reasons to exist in such solitary confinement.
Sam Barry: Behind The Baseline, eir Sport 1, June 1st 9.30pm