Sonia O’Sullivan: The loneliness of the individual sports person

There is no one else to back us up, no one to lend a hand if something goes wrong

Around this time every year I find myself immersed in Melbourne’s summer of sport, which is really just the Australian Open tennis, or else the cricket. It’s as if there is nothing else on the television.

The first time I arrived in Melbourne, 21 years ago, the Australian Open was in full swing. The apartments we had planned to stay in were hosting some top tennis players, including Mary Pierce. We were booked in for a month but had to wait for the tennis players to leave before we could all move in. The location was perfect, close to all the good running spots, so we bided our time elsewhere, waiting on Pierce and the others to be beaten.

So every day between training runs I found myself glued to the tennis, waiting to see if we would be moving. As it turned out, Pierce was ranked fifth in the world at the time and she ended up winning the tournament. No early exit, then.

But there were some fantastic games, often keeping me up well into the night. These were the days of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf – a great era for tennis, men and women.


I soon realised there was no other sport that held my attention like tennis. There is something about the individuality of the sport, probably even more so than athletics: the one-on-one on the court, with emotions running high, especially in some of the marathon games which you just couldn’t let go of.

Gym session

It was a good thing there was a break between the day and night sessions and just enough time to get in a training run and gym session.

There must also be something that draws those of us in an individual sport to another individual sport. There is a connection there that is different than watching a team sport.

As individuals, we ultimately have to make instinctive decisions during a competition. There is no one else on the track or court to back us up, and if something goes wrong, there is no one else there to lend a hand.

Of course, it’s also important to have a support team around you, helping with nutrition, recovery, gym work and the planning of races.

This is something that is particularly obvious in tennis. You see it in the players’ box, with all the support crew in place. The tennis players are often seen looking up at them, looking for that extra support or instruction, especially when things aren’t going to plan. And it sometimes can make a difference.

This is not so easily done when running around a packed stadium. Having said that, I’ll never forget the instructions handed out to the Chinese athletes at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. Their coach, Ma Junren, would take up his position at the top of the backstretch, with around 300 metres to go, and after every lap his athletes would look into the stand at him, as if awaiting some final instruction, which seemed to come at the 700m-to-go mark.

They pulled off their carefully planned tactic in the 10,000m, and again in the 3,000m, with clean sweep of the medals, but there was no way they were getting away with it in the 1,500m. I made sure I was ready once they got their instruction, and at least prevented another clean sweep of the medals (winning silver).

Athletics and tennis also share something in common in that the main championship events for men and women take place on exactly the same stage.Each are also accepted for what they are; they aren’t compared to judge if one is better than the other. I often wonder if this is part of what grabs the attention of spectators in Melbourne every year. Because once it grabs your attention, it’s very hard to let go and I find myself planning my day around games I want to watch and then end up getting so engrossed in, just like when you pick up an addictive book.

Then there is the near constant summer schedule of games across the road in The Melbourne Cricket Ground. It’s never-ending: Test cricket, one-day international cricket, and the current favourite that just finished last weekend, the Big Bash League.

I’m not a big fan of cricket, although even I was starting to see the excitement in the Big Bash League and can understand why they were attracting record crowds this year, even when overlapping with the tennis last weekend.

Centre stage

It’s certainly interesting to see that the women’s Big Bash League played their final in the afternoon ahead of the men’s final; similarly, the Australian women’s cricket team will play a one-day international against India ahead of the men taking on India later in the evening.

It’s great to see some men’s and women’s sports sharing the same centre stage, both individual and team, although plenty more sports could follow suit.

Australia is the number-one ranked cricket team in the world, so it’s appropriate they should lead the world in highlighting equal exposure for women and men’s teams on the same day and in the same stadium: not just any stadium, but the Holy Grail of all stadiums in Australia that is the MCG.

I wonder if Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium might someday highlight such equal exposure.