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James McGee: Ireland's top tennis player relives his US Open dream come true

27-year-old Dubliner qualified for the main draw at the US Open in New York this week.

Source: FREY

JAMES MCGEE STOOD in front of the mirror and looked long and hard. Outside, the crowd on Court 8 waited.

Here he was, within touching distance of the biggest win of his professional career, and nothing was going right.

In a flash, his opponent Ze Zhang had won the first set of their match. It took just 23 minutes. With a place in the main draw of the US Open up for grabs, McGee hadn’t even won a game.

The previous evening, his second round qualifier against the up-and-coming Indian Yuki Bhambri had gone deep into a third set. McGee fed off the adrenaline to launch a comeback and, after trailing 3-5 in the decider, finished with four straight games to win.

That night he hardly slept a wink, maybe three hours, and it showed in the first set against Zhang. Floundering, he took a bathroom break to compose himself before it was too late.

“It’s the last place you want to be,” the Dubliner said. ”I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘This is it. You’ve got to bring it. You don’t have these moments that often.’”

And then he drew a line and forgot about it, which is not an easy thing to do when you are trying to qualify for the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time. The closest that Ireland’s number one — ranked 194th in the world — had ever come was at the French Open in May where he was beaten in the third and final qualifying round.

Mentally I did a great job just to let it go. I think that’s the biggest thing in any sport, golf or tennis, just to be able to let go of your mistakes and move on.

“It’s very easy to be hyper-critical of yourself when you miss an easy shot on top of the net but you’ve just got to forgive yourself and get going.”

James McGee 25/8/2014 Source: FREY

The prize for making it into the main draw at Flushing Meadows stood at just under $36,000 or, to put it in context, about one-quarter of McGee’s total career earnings since he turned pro in 2008.

Last year he shone the spotlight on the lot of a journeyman tennis pro with a lengthy blogpost that detailed the financial challenges of life away from the glitz and glamour of the main ATP tour.

He last won a tournament in August 2013, a Futures (third tier) event in Gabon which was worth just over $2,000, although that lost its gloss pretty quickly when he contracted a debilitating parasite that ruled him out of action for a few weeks.

Although wins have been in short supply since, he was confident that he was heading to New York with some consistent form in the bag. The experience of playing at Roland Garros for the first time, where he lost in straight sets to Andrea Arnaboldi, as well as week fine-tuning alongside some of the game’s more recognisable faces in Florida stood to him.

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At no stage, McGee said, did the magnitude of the occasion come into his head, not even during Monday’s match against Aleksandr Nedovyesov in the first round proper.

If you focus on people scrutinising you, or what anyone else thinks, or the moment or the money or the result, anything that’s outcome-orientated, I think you’re in for a bit of trouble.

“I just focused the whole time on playing good tennis and I accepted whatever was going to happen.

“That was my approach – to go out and give it everything and if you win you win, and if you lose you lose.”

Source: FREY

The fairytale came to an abrupt end in four sets against Nedovyesov, but after taking a couple of days to let it all sink in, the 27-year-old is able to look back proudly on the achievement of a major career milestone.

He is able to describe in almost cinematic detail the final set of his resurrection from 0-6 to beat Zhang — how he opened up a 5-2 advantage (“pretty much the ideal score”) but then, with the match in his hands, was crippled by the worst cramp he had ever felt; how he “bluffed” his way through a point or two before he was pegged back to 5-4; and how, after squandering four match points, he finally hit the shot he has been waiting for all his life.

“Just to actually get that ace on match point… I had nothing left,” he told TheScore.ie from New York this week.

“If I had been broken for 5-5 there’s a very good chance I would have lost that match.

Source: TennisCoachTV/YouTube

“It’s euphoric. I’ve never once cried after a match in my whole life, not even close to it. It was insane.

“You can’t explain it, it was insane, it was amazing. You’ve done something that you’ve worked your whole life for.

I’ve always believed that I was going to make it and was going to play in Grand Slams. The fact that I’ve done it now just reaffirms that belief.

“Potentially I think I can grow even quicker now. From a financial point of view, I think at least getting my name out into the US Open will help me when I’m looking for sponsors.

“But it’s not going to make anything else easier. I’m still going to be the same, I’m still going to work like an animal, and I’m still going to try to get up even higher.”

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Niall Kelly

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