Life on tour: from selling clothes and cleaning boats to playing in Grand Slams. Chris O’ Connell’s rise, struggles, and his resurgence to #116 in the world

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Chris O’ Connell’s tennis journey hasn’t been easy. One of Australia’s top juniors growing up, it was only natural for him to consider a professional career.

But his body had other ideas.

The first stress fracture in his back came at 15 and put him out of the game for more than six months.

After recovering, as opposed to pursuing a junior career on the ITF Junior Tour, O’ Connell elected to grow his game on the Australian Money Tournament (AMT) circuit—a series of small, professional tournaments held across Australia. No homeschooling for O’ Connell though, just lots of travel on the weekends. “The level at AMTs is quite good. It was the equivalent of if I had chosen to travel and play internationally.”

At 17, O’ Connell was selected to be in the Australian Institute of Sport, joining a group of promising players which included Luke Saville (career-high #152 ATP Singles) and Nick Kyrgios. Things were looking good for O’ Connell. He had been selected to train and compete with Australia’s best talent. International tournaments and travel loomed next.

That was when he had the second stress fracture in his back.

The injury kept him out of tennis for close to two years, from 17–19. “I didn’t pick up a racquet for almost two years. I thought I was done with tennis at that point. Every time I tried to play tennis, I would have excruciating pain in my back.” During that time, O’ Connell tried to be a regular teenager and gain back some of the normalcy that tennis often steals from its young competitors. He went to school. He hung out with friends. “I had pretty much thrown in the towel.”

But O’ Connell’s father, Ian O’ Connell, helped his son to see that he still had a long career ahead of him. He encouraged him to try again. He was certain that O’ Connell’s problems were because of his erratic growth spurts. O’ Connell had been quite small as a junior player, and his body had a lot of catching up to do. And that was what happened—when he stopped growing, the pain and stress fractures stopped.

At 19, after nearly two years away from the sport, O’ Connell found himself back on court. At the start of 2015, O’ Connell played a Challenger event in Tasmania. He made it through qualifying and reached the quarterfinals. The result got him off and away. The points he earned in that Challenger gave him automatic entry into ITF Futures and helped him work his way into Challengers in Europe. “The start of 2015 was really good. I was injury free for the first time for a while and after nearly not playing for two years, it didn’t feel like I had lost anything—which was crazy because I hadn’t even picked up a racquet.”

Progress was slow, however. Week after week of non-stop travel was wearing him down. He stopped playing around the middle of that year. “Up until that point mum and dad had funded me and helped me travel. But I just got to a stage where I got sick of ringing up my parents and asking them to wire me money. It didn’t feel right. I was about #500 at that time and I just decided that I can’t keep calling them and asking them for money.”

The story is all too familiar. Many talented and aspiring players are stopped from reaching their potential not by their skills, but by the depth of their bank accounts. It takes a large chunk of money to claw your way through the Futures Tour, then the Challenger Tour, and finally arrive at the ATP or WTA level.

Having had enough of relying on his parents, O’ Connell returned to Australia and got a job in retail. He had a plan. His goal was to save money so that he could fund his own travel. He lived at home, coached, worked at Lululemon, and played Australian Money Tournaments. “I wasn’t getting any help from Tennis Australia (Australia’s governing tennis body) at that time. It seems pretty crazy. I was 19–20, around #400 to #500 in the world, and I’m working at a clothing shop. But I mean that’s the reality. The ITF Futures Tour is brutal. There’s no money in it.”

O’ Connell playing in an ITF Futures event in Spain in 2016

So O’ Connell put his head down. He worked for six months and saved up enough funds to travel and play.

In 2016, he set himself up in Europe and won four or five Futures, finishing the year at #237 in the world.

For his 2016 efforts, he was rewarded with a wildcard into the 2017 Australian Open maindraw. “From going from 18 months to two years of not playing tennis, to a couple of years later playing in the Australian Open was an amazing experience. I got a bit of help from Tennis Australia that year, too, and got assigned a coach.”

O’ Connell at the 2017 Australian Open. He lost to Grigor Dimitrov 6–7 (2–7), 3–6, 3–6

But the results didn’t come in 2017. O’ Connell had gone up a level in terms of competition and wins were harder to come by. That year in Europe, he also contracted pneumonia. The infection left him breathless after just a few moments on court. “I could only last about 15 minutes and then I would have to sleep for a couple of hours.”

He persisted, though, and finished 2017 at #393. It was a slow but certain rise. Even then, O’ Connell was disappointed in his results. He expected better. He decided to recommit himself and prepare harder than ever for the upcoming 2018 season.

That was when he injured his right knee. Tendinitis put him out for half of the year. “It was similar to what I experienced with my back. Anytime I tried to move on court I would have this excruciating pain in my knee.”

It was a tough time for O’ Connell. The continual injuries frustrated him. He didn’t want to be on court anymore. Coaching wasn’t something he felt he could do. During those six months, O’ Connell instead cleaned boats every morning. “I was so sick of being on a tennis court. And there’s a marina close to my place so I just cleaned boats there in the mornings.”

After overcoming the tendinitis in his knee, O’ Connell set up base in Turkey and started back on the ITF Futures Tour.

He began the 2019 season ranked #1177 in the world in singles. 12 months later, he finished the year more than a thousand spots higher—ranked #119—with wins over Tommy Paul, Thomaz Bellucci, and Steve Johnson.

Though O’ Connell had been ranked as high as #219 at the start of 2017, to jump a thousand spots in a calendar year is extremely rare in professional tennis. Players usually take a couple years to make that sort of progress. But O’ Connell did it by winning 86 out of 106 matches on the ITF Futures Tour and Challenger Tour—that’s more than even Daniil Medvedev, who won 59 matches out of the 80 he played in 2019 on the ATP Tour. Obviously Medvedev won his matches at a higher level, but O’ Connell’s feat wasn’t easy by any means.

O’ Connell made around $80,000 USD in 2019. He lived frugally, bought breakfast ingredients from supermarkets, and ate in his hotel room. He asked chefs in tiny restaurants to make him simple meals of chicken, rice, and vegetables. Flights to tournaments? No. Trains and buses. They were cheaper.

Even after all that, his costs for the season after factoring in training, travel, accommodation, and gear were over $65,000 USD. For the best professional year of his life, O’ Connell walked away with less than $15,000 USD.

This is a stark reality of life on the Futures Tour and even the Challenger level. Tennis’ prize money structure rewards the best of the best handsomely. But if you’re trying to work your way into that category, you must struggle.

Tennis Australia took notice of O’ Connell’s 2019. Rightfully so. In January, they awarded him a wildcard into the 2020 Australian Open maindraw. O’ Connell was psyched for his opportunity, but he drew a red-hot Andrey Rublev, who had yet to lose a match at that point in time in 2020. O’ Connell was beaten by Rublev 3–6, 6–0, 4–6, 6–7 (5–7). (Rublev would lose his first match of the year in the fourth round of the Australian Open against Alexander Zverev.)

For losing that match alone, O’ Connell walked away with around $63,000 USD. He earned almost as much in that two hour and fifteen minute defeat on Court 19 in Melbourne Park than he had earned in the entirety of 2019. Such is the disparity between the highest tiers of tennis and its lower levels.

After the Australian Open, O’ Connell’s 2020 wasn’t exactly stellar. He traveled through North America competing on the Challenger Tour, winning some and losing some, but was unable to put together the string of victories that he had become known for in 2019.

When coronavirus hit, he knew it was time to head home to the Northern Beaches of Sydney. As things got worse and the full scale of the pandemic was revealed, O’ Connell felt himself losing motivation. He’d just had the best 16 months of his career. Now everything was coming to a halt. “At the start of all of this, it was hard to stay motivated. What was the point of training if I didn’t know what I was training for?”

After reflecting, O’ Connell has seen the time off as a boon. He has used it to spend quality time with family and friends. Tennis players are global athletes. Unless they’re in the top 20 or so in the world, it’s not financially possible to cart families and friends around the globe with them. It’s a lonely sport.

On Wednesday 17th June, tennis’ governing bodies released provisional schedules for a small North American swing of tournaments, starting in August. The releases stated that the US Open was still on and scheduled for early September.

The announcements ignited O’ Connell’s hunger. His ranking of #116 would be good enough to get him a maindraw berth into the Grand Slam in New York.

Though at the start of the pandemic he found it difficult to stay motivated, O’ Connell is training every day now. He feels his form returning. “When I was hitting on alternating days during the start of the pandemic, it was tough to get a rhythm. Now that I’m training every day, I can feel it starting to come back.”

As of now, he plans to make the trip to Flushing Meadows to see if he will get a chance to qualify for the Western & Southern Open (otherwise known as the Cincinnati Masters), which is being held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this year as a lead-up event. After that it’s the US Open.

Professional tennis is a fickle sport for its competitors. But things have changed for O’ Connell. For now, he no longer has to worry about his body breaking down, asking his parents to wire him money, or wonder if he has to get the chef’s special at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

He can focus all of his energies and mental efforts into competing well and trying to fulfill his potential as a player.

It’s all any athlete could ask for.

Wherever he goes from here and however he does, one thing’s for sure, O’ Connell’s tennis journey has been anything but easy.◉

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