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James Cluskey on Irish tennis' steady improvement and why drug testing in the sport is inept

The Dubliner also tells TheScore.ie about just missing out on Wimbledon.

James Cluskey has won 17 professional doubles titles.
James Cluskey has won 17 professional doubles titles.
Image: Paul Railton/INPHO

AT ONE POINT, Ireland’s James Cluskey seemed all set to be competing at this year’s Wimbledon.

With the help of a very successful Pledge Sports crowdfunding campaign, Cluskey was in with a very good chance of competing with the likes of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Yet, agonisingly, he missed out by just two spots ultimately.

“It was pretty disappointing,” Cluskey tells TheScore.ie. “Because I’d been travelling a lot and putting a lot into trying to make it there but it didn’t happen.

“With 10 minutes to go I was in, but obviously I didn’t get in in the end. That was tough to take but it happens. I’ve no regrets because if I hadn’t done the crowdfunding, I would have thought ‘what if’. This money gave me the opportunity to do my best and have a look.”

Yet when one opportunity passes, another inevitably comes along, hence this week, Cluskey was afforded the chance to compete at an ATP event — playing doubles with Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin in the SkiStar Swedish Open. Moreover, this would not have been possible were it not for his crowdfunding campaign, which raised a total of €13,080, comfortably exceeding his target of €10,000.

“I only found out last Friday,” he says. “I usually enter the tour events but I haven’t been getting in because you have to be very strong to get in.

“So for me this is a massive achievement,” he adds. “Obviously Wimbledon is different but this is a consolation almost. You can count on one hand how many Irish players had played on draws in ATP events.”

The Dubliner consequently was able to compete in the same tournament as some of the game’s top players, including current world number seven, Spain’s David Ferrer.

And though himself and Kukushkin ultimately lost out to number four seeds Nicholas Monroe (USA) and Johan Brunstrom (Sweden), he maintained a positive outlook, describing his “really enjoyable week” on Twitter.

Such positivity is something Cluskey tends to emphasise when describing life as a professional tennis player. Though there are certain obstacles and inconveniences, it is ultimately a position he feels privileged to be in.

“I don’t like loads of the articles that I read where it’s really negative on tennis — no one is forcing me to be here, I do it because I love it,” he says. “And yes, it’s not easy, but there are a lot of people who are in a worse situation than me. When I read all the stuff about lack of funding and how difficult it is… I mean I’m in Sweden this week and I’m on the beach and it’s one of the best places I’ve ever been.

“I think it’s a global tennis problem as well. The prize money is not good enough at the lower end of the game. The top end of the game has all the money, so I think it could be spread a little better.”

And while unequivocal success won’t come over night, Cluskey believes Irish tennis is improving slowly but surely. Moreover, he says the reasons for lack of top-level Irish players are more complex than a simple lack of funding.

“I think it’s easy to complain about lack of funding. I’ve been travelling for a lot of years and there are not many guys who are getting ridiculous funding. I think it’s more the culture of the game and as a tennis nation, where we’re at.

“It takes someone to do something. Conor [Niland] qualifying at Wimbledon and the US Open, reaching 129 in singles — that raised the bar a little bit, and then you’ve got me — I’m 155 in doubles and now I’ve played a main drawer tour event. For the next generation, it really raises the expectation level.

“When I was 10-years-old and I’d go and watch Davis Cup, the highest ranked odds we had were around 220-250. So if we saw a guy winning Futures, we’d think: ‘Jesus, he’s unbelievable!’ Whereas now hopefully me playing a tour event and winning some Challengers and doubles, and Conor having won Challengers and the career that he had, and James McGee’s doing well… It’s kind of raising the expectation, and raising the level.”

James Cluskey, Barry King, James McGee, Conor Niland and captain Gary Cahill Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

(Ireland’s [left/right] James Cluskey, Barry King, James McGee, Conor Niland and captain Gary Cahill ahead of their Davis Cup match with Tunisia in 2012)

And the Swords native himself has won 17 professional doubles titles in total, which is a phenomenal achievement, yet one that seldom gets mentioned in headlines about Irish tennis — not that the lack of recognition is keeping him awake at night though.

“I’m not doing it for anyone else, it’s all for me,” he says. “But when people acknowledge you, it’s obviously nice. I love the game for me and I’m happy doing what I’m doing and the people who are closest to me are people in tennis. They know what I’ve done and a lot of people say it to me personally.

“I’ve won a few matches in singles this year, but my game is probably more suited to doubles. My volleys and stuff like that [are my strong points]. I really enjoy doubles, it’s a different game, it’s different tactically and you obviously have to get on with your partner. But I enjoy singles as well.”

Nevertheless, for all the recent progress made by Cluskey and Irish tennis in general, the 27-year-old has had doubts about his future in the sport on more than one occasion, and he admits he may not persevere for much longer.

“Last summer, I was thinking of quitting, and even now, to be honest, I’m not going to lie, I’ll play the next month or two, or the next couple of months and get to the end of the year and see where my ranking is.

“Obviously, it’s tough to make a living and keep going money-wise. I don’t really want to go back to crowdfunding because people have already supported me. I would love to keep playing, but I’m defending a lot of points now as well, so my ranking could drop and if my ranking drops, I’m not sure I want to go back to Futures. So basically, the next month or two is key for me to see how I do and where my ranking goes.


(Cluskey celebrates a victory — image credit: Pledge Sports)

“I’ve no regrets in what I’ve done. I’ve won every kind of Futures you can win, I’ve won a couple of Challengers now. I’ve played a tour event and I obviously just missed out on Wimbledon, so whatever happens, I’m proud of what I’ve done, but hopefully the next month or two goes well. But I think a lot of players have the same kind of issues. So there’s a lot of pressure on the whole year to do well.”

In addition, one of the toughest elements of the sport, he explains, is being away from family.

“You’re travelling a lot, which is not easy. You’re travelling alone most of the time, which I’m pretty used to by now. This year, for example, I’ve been to Uzbekistan for two weeks, so places that are not that nice.”

As a consequence of this issue, the sport can affect your personal life, he says, and vice versa.

“If you’re seeing a girl in Ireland, for example, and you lose, and you’re trying to get home, it sometimes might not be the best for your tennis to go home because of practice and everything, because you obviously want to go home and see this girl.

“It depends on the girl obviously, and if she’s okay with you being away. We had a guy on our team in college — he was the best player on the team, and he started going out with this girl.

“Nothing really changed but he lost five matches in a row, and our coach, who was looking for anything, was saying: ‘You’ve got to break up with this girl, she’s ruining your tennis career.’

“Once or twice I’ve been away — you lose and have the option to stay and practice and improve for the next challenge, or you could get a flight home for a couple of days, which is tempting. But it depends on the situation.”

Source: Ahmed Abdelaal/YouTube

While Cluskey has offers to go back to the US (where he attended college) when he does retire, he remains keen to continue his involvement with Irish tennis in some capacity. In addition to putting his degree to use by setting up his own business, the idea of working with younger players appeals to him. With that in mind, how can the standard of Irish tennis be improved?

Cluskey describes his stint as a youngster playing in America as a path that junior players should consider following.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the standard of coaching — there’s good coaches in Ireland. Conor’s obviously coaching, Gary Cahill’s there. There are good coaches in Ireland, I think it’s more the matches you can get over there. In Ireland, there are not many tournaments and the average player level probably isn’t high enough.

“Whereas when you go to America, you play so many matches that you learn how to play matches in singles and doubles, and you just improve as a player. The other thing is as well — the average age of guys who are at the top of the game is getting older and older, so if you have ridiculous amounts of money and don’t want to go to college, then okay, but most guys have a four or five-year window to play. It’s probably better to do it at 22 or 23 than to do it at 18.”

James Cluskey Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

(Cluskey in action at the Irish Open)

One issue Cluskey won’t miss whenever he does retire from the sport is the perceived lax attitude that the game’s hierarchy appear to possess on certain matters.

For instance, tennis, along with a number of other sports, has been accused of not doing enough to tackle potential instances of player doping, and Cluskey believes these criticisms are justifiable.

“I got tested in Prague — the week before Wimbledon. I wasn’t really asking the guy but I think they should test more in tennis to be honest. Obviously there are a lot of question marks over a lot of sports… When you look at the case with Fuentes, where they got rid of the tests, and supposedly the doctor had been working with a lot of different sports — football was included, tennis was included, obviously cycling was.

“It’s terrible when you look at the cases of Lance Armstrong and all these people, and there are a lot of rumours in tennis as well. It’s obviously big money and when you look at how it was covered all up…

“I’m not playing tour events every week obviously, but I think they should spend more on anti-doping measures. There should be more testing and there should be blood testing. You look at last year, when [Marin] Cilic and [Viktor] Troicki were banned — guys who were ranked pretty high. So hopefully they’re looking to spend more money on anti-doping. And hopefully they can catch more people who are cheating.”

For more information about James Cluskey, click here. 

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Paul Fennessy

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