From #1177 in the world to #114—in just one year. The details of Chris O’ Connell’s rapid rise

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This interview is Part 2 of a conversation that I had with world #116 Chris O’ Connell. Part 1, which is a profile, details O’ Connell’s struggles with injuries and finances before he was finally able to put together a fantastic season in 2019, where he rose from #1177 to #114 in just one year. I recommend reading that before you read this interview.

Read Chris O’ Connell’s profile (Part 1).

As part of Tennis inbox’s ‘Life on tour’ series, I asked O’ Connell a few additional questions about what spurred his quick ascent up the rankings, his thoughts on the brutal structure of our sport, traveling on tour, and how he’s had to readjust his life on the cusp of the biggest breakthrough of his career.

The following is our conversation, edited for clarity.

MM: Hi Chris, thanks for speaking to Tennis inbox. Let’s get into the questions. Before your current rise, you were as high as #219. But your journey there was slower than this time around. What was different this time and what changed? Your mindset? Experience?

CO: I’ve always thought that I was a slow developer with everything: with growing and with learning how to play tennis. So it took me a while to get to that 220 point. That experience of getting to that 200 level really helped. I’m not sure how to explain it properly—

MM: —That you had done it before so it would be easier this time around?

CO: I just felt confident that I could get back to that point really quickly. I was older, and I felt confident that I could reach that level again. There’s not much more to it. I knew if I could stay out on court and stay healthy, I could have the results that I wanted again. My ranking would just look after itself. And I guess that’s what happened!

MM: Did you have a base somewhere for your 2019 season? A place where you went to train in the off weeks? Were you traveling with a pack of other players or doing things by yourself? Any coaches with you?

CO: I was solo the whole time. That year was a little different because of the ranking reform that the ATP and ITF put in place. The ATP and the ITF had a separate ranking system. So you had to have a high ITF ranking to get into the ATP rankings. It was a little bit confusing and I had lost my ATP ranking because I had been injured.

I did ask for a protected ranking but my protected ranking wasn’t good enough to get into the Challenger events—so my only way of getting back on the ATP Tour and playing Challenger Tour events was to get my ITF ranking up.

I was like, “Holy shit, this is going to be such a grind.” But I asked myself: where are the most Futures played? And they’re in Europe. So I decided to play every week on clay. It was way better for my body, and it was the only way I’d be able to get my ITF ranking up quickly.

I was on a mission to play every single week. That’s when I went on my run. I figured I needed to be around top 20 ITF to get onto the ATP Challenger Tour, and I did that pretty quickly—in about three or fourth months.

And by the time I did that they went back to the old system, where there was just one ranking. All my ITF and Futures points got converted back into ATP points.

O’ Connell in Antayla, Turkey

MM: Do you think it was a fair conversion?

CO: Reasonably fair. But it was pretty ridiculous that first six months. I was just grinding week in week out. I couldn’t get into any Challenger events. I was grinding just playing Futures.

In hindsight, I think it was the best thing for my tennis. I was literally playing every single week. I was making a lot of finals and playing plenty of matches. It really helped me transition into the Challenger events much easier because I had so many matches underneath my belt.

MM: Can you speak about traveling by yourself? The routines you have to follow and the pressure of it? When the casual tennis fan imagines a tennis player, they see their coaching squad around them. But that’s not the reality for 95% of players who consider themselves professionals.

CO: I’m pretty good on my own so it wasn’t such a huge problem for me. Also not many Aussies like playing on the clay in Europe—they usually like playing in Asia or over in America. But I love playing on the clay.

The only way to play all these Futures was to have a base because it’s just impossible to play every week for a long stretch of time. I’d play three or four weeks in a row and then I’d take a week off.

I was based in Belgrade, where I became friendly with a Serbian tennis player called Danilo Petrovic (career-high #155 ATP). He told me I could come to Belgrade and train with him in his academy.

That solved a lot of my problems because if you go to Europe, you have the 90-day Schengen problem. Serbia isn’t part of the Schengen zones, so I could be there and my days wouldn’t count towards my Schengen visa. I played a lot of tournaments in Eastern Europe because of that, too. Places where travel back and forth from Serbia was easier.

When I’m on my own, I just get into the rhythm of things. I set up my room—I room on my own. I’m pretty OCD so I’ve got a pretty strict routine. I set up a mat on the ground, and I’m constantly stretching because I’m scared that I’m going to get injured. I pretty much go over the top with my prehab and rehab, and I’m constantly stretching in between my matches and in my room.

MM: During your recent rise, you played guys ranked in the thousands all the way to players in the top 100. What would you say the difference is between the tennis that’s played probably from 800–500, 500–200, and now to where you are? I mean in terms of general trends of how the guys play? Bigger serves, better movement, more weapons? I think our readers who are quality players would be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.

CO: It has a lot to do with mentality. And consistency. I’ve played plenty of guys ranked from 500–800. They’re extremely good tennis players, and they have amazing technique. They play quick. But the thing that separates the top 200 or top 300 from those guys is just how clinical—and clutch—they are.

The guys that are ranked higher play the 30–30 points better. They seem more confident on those points. Even when they’re down breakpoints they seem to find a big serve or find the right shot at the right time. That’s the biggest difference—how they play those big points.

MM: Meaning they’re just able to sustain a higher level?

CO: For sure. And then there’s the week in week out part of it. Tennis has such a long season. You go from January to November. You can’t just peak in one month. You have to be consistent throughout the whole year. And that’s something I’ve tried to work on over the past few years.

I had really good results early on when I was 19 or 20, but was unable to maintain them consistently. And that’s what those big guys do. They can back it up every single week. It’s amazing.

MM: Our sport is set up in, some would argue, a terrible way. If you’re the 300th best basketball player in the world, you’re on a contract for a couple million dollars. If you’re the 300th best tennis player, you’re having the chef’s special at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Eastern Europe while trying to figure out if you have enough money to make it through the next two tournaments. It’s not a fair comparison as we’re not a team sport, but what are your thoughts on this disparity? As in how many people struggle to make a living playing our sport?

O’ Connell serves against Andrey Rublev at the 2020 Australian Open

CO: It’s something I don’t dive into all that much and research. It has affected me a lot because I’ve had to work different jobs while I’ve considered myself a ‘professional tennis player’. But I’ve always thought that if I worked hard enough and got into the top 100 then it would all work itself out.

But if I was to sit back and look at some of the players that are ranked 300–400, those guys are really struggling for money. It’s tough. There’s a lot of good players who aren’t getting anything. That’s where we have to look at other avenues, like playing club tennis over in Germany.

It’s something I haven’t thought about all that much. I’ve just been set in my ways of trying to get into the top 100—

MM:—It is what it is in a way?

CO: Yes. It has been improving, though. Every year it’s improving. Especially the qualifying at Grand Slams. You can get quite decent money in that. But the money in Futures and Challengers hasn’t increased at all over the past few years. It’s just been Grand Slam money that’s increased. But you have to be top 240 to be getting into the qualification draw, so it still doesn’t stretch down to the lower ranks.

Like you said, it is what it is (laughs). But yeah—it sucks.

MM: How have you been handling the time off? When I spoke to doubles specialist Nathaniel Lammons, he told me he wasn’t training much to avoid burning out. Has this been the same for you? This mandatory time off has maybe been an even bigger frustration for you as you probably felt that you were on the cusp of breaking the top 100.

CO: I felt like I was on a bit of a roll. I didn’t start off the year as well as I wanted to but I felt I was coming good over in the States, and I felt I was playing some good tennis heading into the outdoor season.

I’m treating it like another injury. I’ve always come back from injuries quite well. But in this case, everyone can’t play. Everyone’s in the same boat. So I’m treating it like I’m injured.

I was training three or four times a week but now I’m starting to increase frequency because tournaments are starting up again. The first couple of months I struggled for motivation—I didn’t know what I was training for. Now I’m excited and ready to play.

MM: Thanks for speaking to Tennis inbox, Chris. Good luck on your upcoming tournaments and hope you manage to make it to the States for your first ever US Open. We’ll be cheering you on.

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