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From a US scholarship to inspiring the next generation and female coaches: Driving tennis in Ireland

Wicklow’s Gráinne O’Neill is the national co-ordinator for women in tennis.

GRÁINNE O’NEILL KNEW that a life centred on playing tennis wasn’t sustainable.

aig-show-your-skills-launch Grainne O'Neill. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

A native of Blessington in Wicklow, growing up, O’Neill was never without a racket in her hand. A prodigious talent, she catapulted to prominence when she won the U18 National Championships in 2010. From there, she lived the American Dream on scholarship at Ohio State University.

While her main focus was on playing and bettering herself and her game individually, she soon caught the bug for coaching — after promising herself as a child that she wouldn’t.

Growing up,” the Naas LTC club woman laughs, “I would have always been like, ‘Well, I never want to be a coach. I only play!’ But then once I had the bit of coaching experience in America, I wanted to bring that back and promote tennis here — primarily on the female side.

When we chat in late February, the 26-year-old has just undertaken an exciting new role as Tennis Ireland’s national co-ordinator for women in tennis. Smiling from ear-to-ear, O’Neill was relishing the challenge ahead.

“I’m delighted to hit the ground running,” the Sport Industry graduate beams. “It’s my first week, so I’m getting used to it all. It’s a personal passion of mine to promote women in sport so I’m delighted to get the role.

“I’m still playing a good bit of tennis, I played the National Indoor Championships over Christmas time so it’s great to keep involved as both a player and a coach, and to have that unique perspective going into working in Tennis Ireland.”

As part of this brand new role in conjunction with Sport Ireland and the International Tennis Federation, O’Neill will be empowering and inspiring more women to take leadership roles within the sport, at club and branch level.

Equal opportunities and equity across the board is a priority, through promoting the Advantage All programme — which is based on gender equality in tennis — and Sport Ireland’s Women In Sport policy.

“The big thing with tennis in Ireland is participation is pretty equal but we really need to get more female coaches involved,” she explains. “That’s a big goal of ours.

Coaches, officials; we really want to inspire more females to get involved in the coaching aspect, and to then be role models for players to get involved. That’s a priority for me: getting females out there in the open, and it will grow from there.

While O’Neill still plays competitively on these shores for Naas — and coaches the lower ladies teams there — her international experience came thousands of miles away in Ohio.

As her star rose on the Irish scene, going to America on a scholarship came on her radar. Her coach put the idea in her head, and she looked into it. She sent out a few videos and tested the waters, but a personal connection got it over the line in the end.

Former Ireland international Ciara Finucane had attended Ohio State herself, so she introduced O’Neill to the coach, who in turn, came to watch her here.

“I got to play against players from all over the world and that would have been at quite a high level. I came into the Ohio State team when we were lower in the overall rankings in college. We worked our way up to number one in the final year.

“Obviously once the standard is raised, the competition gets a lot tougher. We would have had to play loads of matches over the course of the four years I played, and then I stayed on an extra year as a coach. That opened my eyes to the coaching side of things.”

In her spare time during summers at home, she fell into coaching.

“I was deciding what I wanted to do and I just got involved hitting with elite juniors in Naas,” she recalls. “I found myself giving tips here and there about match scenarios. I was almost coaching without any of the qualifications.

Then I decided, ‘This is actually something I enjoy, I don’t hate it.’ In the back of my mind I thought I’d never be a coach, but I really ended up enjoying it a huge amount.

“I do a lot of work in Naas now with the lower ladies teams, I think that’s really important. A lot of the lower ladies teams, they wouldn’t have had any kind of formal coaching in years past so I’m using the expertise and the bit of experience I have from America and playing.

“A lot of it is the basic stuff, but it’s been really enjoyable, and a great experience for me.”

grainne O'Neill is the National Coordinator for Women in Tennis. Source: Tennis Ireland.

Just like her time with the Buckeyes at Ohio State. 

From the countless hours spent training, the endless matches and the hours and hours of academic commitments, one crystal clear moment stands out. Of course, it involves her beloved team.

“In my final year, I was team captain and we ended up overthrowing the number one team in the country and beating them in the national indoor competition,” she smiles as the memories come flooding back. 

One of the Japanese girls she had helped all the way up — she also went on to win an NCAA doubles championship — clinched it for O’Neill’s side. 

That was a great moment for me because it was the whole team running onto the court, we all grabbed her and gave her a big, massive hug,” she beams. “I still have a photo of me grabbing her in a hug myself and throwing her up in the air. That memory…

“Whenever someone asks me, I’m like, ‘Hugging Miho when she clinched for us to beat Vanderbilt. That’s a highlight for me.”

While O’Neill decided to go the career route on home soil, she explains that there’s still a pathway for college athletes to turn professional afterwards. South Africa’s Kevin Anderson would probably be the biggest success story after his stint at University of Illinois.

“There is the option to go into the professional circuit, but for a lot of people, even making a collegiate team is a fantastic achievement in itself,” she nods.

2019 Irish Open champion Georgia Drummy, who actually plays for University of Vanderbilt, is one player she earmarks as a huge talent: “She’s doing really well over in the States. For her, it was a decision that she could continue playing competitive matches and if the option was there, to go professional. She’s definitely good enough to.”

Then there’s Sinead Lohan and Ruth Copagh on the professional circuit after playing collegiately. Simon Carr, Julian Bradley and Peter Bothwell are among those on the Irish men’s side. 

The talent certainly is there — and there’s more coming through — but one big thing for tennis here is the need for better facilities to produce more and more. There’s been an increase in indoor facilities and that’s paid dividends, O’Neill says. 

You know yourself, the weather isn’t great in Ireland so it’s hard to get the guarantee to be able to train every single day. The huge thing is getting more bubbles. It’s not necessarily building a whole indoor facility, but providing a bubble over two or three courts and then the option is there no matter what.

“Another great thing is the creation of more clay courts, and that’s going to be huge for development. The majority of the season is clay court tournaments so we do need them. Certainly, professionally, there’s no astro turf pro tournaments bar the ones in Ireland.

“Naas is one of the leading examples, they have three clay courts. It’s outdoor so it’s still tough in this weather. Summer time is great, you have the clay courts there to train.”

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“The development of more clay courts is going to hugely benefit the game,” she adds, noting that Naas’ clay courts brought more and more juniors into the club. 

International experience is something else she encourages up-and-coming youngsters to gather, as O’Neill looks to the future and developing tennis on these shores.

The big thing I always promote is if you can play international tournaments, it just gives you a different perspective. You can have this persona of ‘Brilliant in Ireland but when you go internationally, it’s a different standard.’

“I’m always an advocate of if you have the opportunity to go and play, maybe in Transition Year, I did that myself, it’s a great eye-opener and it’s good motivation as well. You play these kids at such a high standard and it motivates you that that’s the level I want to be at.

“There’s definitely a good few juniors coming through, and the more facilities improve, the more juniors stay here because that’s an issue — that’s always been an issue with tennis in Ireland. If you get to a certain level, you almost feel like you have to go abroad, you have to go to an academy in order to train full-time and get the most out of it.

grainne Playing for the OSU Buckeyes in 2014. Source: Christine Adamczyk

“Hopefully with the development of more clay courts and more opportunities to play every day, we’ll keep the good juniors here so they can grow.”

That’s what she’s doing now. 

Tennis has given her so much, and she wants to give back. While she’ll continue to play, she’ll delve deeper into the world of coaching and administration as she drives the sport on in her new women’s tennis lead.

“Absolutely,” O’Neill beams. “I came home with so much experience. I was like, ‘Look, the more people know about it, the more information that’s given out.’

“I came back hoping to be a role model for other girls, and since, a lot of females came up to me and asked me about the journey to college. There’s not a huge amount of information out there, a lot of people don’t even know that there’s possibilities in America to get a scholarship.

“There’s this persona, ‘Oh, I won’t be good enough,’ but there’s a huge amount of opportunity over there if you just find the right people and ask questions.

“I came home, hoping to be that person that others came to asking about going to America. I might not know the answer but I can certainly find someone to help you out.”

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Emma Duffy

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