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Ireland punches well above its weight when it comes to sport. Even if we exclude traditional games such as hurling and Gaelic football, we’re still a nation of overachievers on the global stage. From rugby and football to boxing and MMA, Ireland’s finest are also ranked among the world’s finest.
However, one sport we’ve never represented well for is the likes of tennis. This isn’t to denigrate the achievements or talents of Irish professionals such as James McGee, Kelly Liggan and Yvonne Doyle. Yet, when you go outside of the Emerald Isle, these local stars aren’t ranked highly on many people’s big hitters.
It’s Just Not Our Sport
Take a scroll through the 2021 US Open betting odds online: who do you see? Of course, there are the standard stars from countries that are just as small as Ireland riding high in the bookmakers’ estimates. Take, for instance, Serbian elite Novak Djokovic, who is currently at odds of 8/11 to be titled the outright winner after a stunning year that almost saw him awarded the prestigious Golden Slam accolade.
Djokovic is always going to be listed in the latest US Open betting tips as he’ll be the talk among pundits and punters, so long as he’s fit. In contrast, Ireland’s Matt Doyle isn’t prolific enough to be featured. Again, that’s not a slight on Doyle or Irish tennis in general: we know from our exploits in other sports that we’re a nation capable of performing at elite levels. However, it’s very apparent that at the moment, tennis isn’t our forte.
The question, therefore, is why aren’t Irish tennis players performing at an elite level?
One of the most obvious reasons is culture. We’re a small nation of just under 5 million people and the majority of our rising athletes gravitate towards the likes of sports such as rugby, football, hurling, horse racing and boxing. This leaves little room for other sports to gain a foothold in the local culture.
Of course, there are still plenty of people that play tennis, but the numbers are substantially limited when compared to the aforementioned sports.
Lack of Support is Stifling Talent
This leads us to the issue of infrastructure. Tennis Ireland was given €450,000 worth of funding in 2020 by Sport Ireland. That’s not a meagre amount of money but it’s almost €1 million less than the Special Olympics team received. It’s also significantly less than athletics (€1 million) and swimming (€950,000) received. This discrepancy is compounded by the number of provisions there are for aspiring players. In 2016, just 3% of Irish adults that took part in a sport played tennis. Those that do play tennis have to fight for coaching.
Data from Tennis Ireland shows that there are 180 licenced tennis clubs and approximately 80,000 members across the country. Add to this around 180 certified tennis coaches and that’s essentially one coach for every 444 players. When someone has to fight for a coach’s time, it can stifle their progression.
Herein lies the problem. There’s no doubt tennis suffers because it’s not as popular as other sports. However, there’s a distinct lack of funding and infrastructure supporting those who do want to play. Sport Ireland only has a limited number of resources, so serving everyone equally isn’t possible. But, if Ireland is ever going to produce an ace, tennis needs a lot more support.