Courts along the yellow brick road of tennis are littered with burned out prodigies. Families have spilt, mug shots of parents have been plastered to the walls of Grand Slam events over “strictly no entry”.
Tennis history, based on a ranking system that weeds out all but the armour plated, has not been kind to children. Even the brightest talent can fall to the regime. Former Dublin footballer Tommy Carr knows it. His 15-year-old son Simon knows it. But knowing what it is to make it as a professional tennis player is as much being hard wired for the demands.
Today Simon's head is buried in a Junior Cert book in the Tennis Ireland offices at DCU, where he trains. After the exams he won't pick up a text book for some time. Next year he won't go to school. From an average school attendance at Mullingar CBS of once a week he will stop his formal education and depart to the tennis world. There he'll sink or swim in a tough, tough environment.
“You can feel the tension when you come into the halls, the tennis courts,” says Tommy. “You can feel the levels of expectation. You can feel there is nobody digging each other out. It is cut-throat stuff and cut throat at the age of 14 or 15. I haven’t seen it before in this country. Not in terms of team sport, any sport.
“The Russians in particular are serious, serious operators. The Eastern Europeans, the Lithuanians, Estonians, they’re hungry. Are they us, the Irish, 50 years ago going off to London or New York. We would do anything to survive. Are they the ones out there now doing anything to survive and make it?”
It’s a lonely shark pool too. A few months ago in Spain, Simon arrived and didn’t know what to do. Two hours on the court was the easy part. There was no language, no friends, no advisers, no idea of where to go in a strange city, where to eat and no experience of managing the 22 hours between matches.
“I do find it lonely actually,” he says. “You are on your own for two hours in a match. There is no one helping you with that. If you are in a tournament on your own there is no one to talk to, no one to confide in.”
It’s a world of cheats, bullies and fear, a world of pressure and stress. The hard currency is mental strength and it is worth even more than tennis ability. The junior players flip up their scores at the back of the court and they make their own line calls because at that level there are no line judges and umpires. It’s a recipe for conflict. And there is conflict. “There are cheats out there,” says Simon matter of fact. “A lot of them are hungry for the wrong things. I know a guy from Serbia. His dad is constantly on the court screaming at him. He’s going to get burned out.”
Simon is learning that confrontation isn’t always bad, that a feral, ballsy attitude on the court is no more than allowing him to be competitive. He is already professional. “I come up on Tuesday morning. At 9 to 10 I do a speed session,” he says. “Ten to 12 I’m on court. Twelve to two I get lunch. Then two more hours on the court until four. Then I have strength session until five.
“It’s the same every day. On Friday I go to school and at 3 or 4 and play until 6.30pm and then I’ve a league match (with Clontarf) at 7.30pm. Saturday morning I’d go from 10 to about one. On Sunday I’d do a strength session or a running session down in Mullingar.”
He began the year with a junior (under-18) ranking of 800. It is now down to 561. He wants to be at 200 in the senior rankings in his early 20s. The 200 rank is a launch pad to Grand Slams.
“The quicker I get out there the better,” he says. “If I start now I’ll be experienced when I’m 19. It will speed the process along a bit. It’s exciting. The main goal is to get to the top 200 as quickly as possible. After that you could be 200 and climb up to 50 in the space of a year if you have an unbelievable year. A lot is chance and a lot is luck but I’m looking forward to it.”
No one in Ireland has really made it in tennis in the way other Irish sports have at world level. In recent years Conor Niland, Louk Sorensen and James McGee hit the Slams and made second rounds to set modern benchmarks. None of them went to the tennis market at 15-years-old in the way the right-hander is doing. He sees it as opportunity, an option to make a career. For that things have to give, his education and his parents' bank balance are two. Sponsorship is a dream.
Their view on schooling is particular but also enlightening and daring. It has always been an issue in Irish tennis and most have taken the college route to the USA. The question is to what end, a degree or a professional career.
“You need parents who are willing to think outside the box, take alternative views,” says Tommy. “We look at it in a holistic way. It’s an education being out there. Everyone tells us to cover our options, stay going to school, that there is always a scholarship. But do that and nothing happens. It’s a cop out. This isn’t criticising anyone who goes to the USA but it is like anything at this level.
“If you’re providing yourself with options just in case, it means you don’t fully believe in what you are doing or that you are actually going to make it. And if you don’t fully believe you’re going to make it, it’s not going to happen. We’ve had the discussions.”
Dozens of teenagers every year prove there are no guarantees. A decade with the Dublin football team has, at least, taught Tommy that. But there’s a rod of steel binding the thinking process. It’s a punt but they see it as handing Simon the possibility to succeed in tennis, not removing the option of a traditional education. They go in eyes wide open.
“I’d 10 long years of it in a Dublin jersey and a good bit after that managing teams,” says Tommy. “I had a minor team, Westmeath, for three years and you would often love to say to them ‘if you really want to see what commitment is just come and live with one of these kids for a month’. They have a pudding of a time, the Gaelic footballers, the soccer players. It is no comparison whatsoever, not just Simon but all the kids. You see them from Russia, Germany, Serbia and they have expectations from their own countries, huge expectations.
“Simon is at a level now where senior intercounty footballers are at in terms of the sports science aspect. That’s where you want to be. When they go on in this country about commitment – and here’s me a GAA person saying it – they are in cloud cuckoo land.”
On Wednesday the Junior Cert began. It was an end. And for a 15-year-old also a beginning.