Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 3°C Sunday 29 November 2020

'Having to pick yourself out of the rubble every time you have a setback - of course it's tiring'

Beyond The Baseline follows Irish tennis pro Sam Barry as he navigates the loneliness and relentless grind of life on the circuit.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE’S A MOMENT early in Beyond The Baseline when Sam Barry is preparing to compete at a lowly tournament in Feuchorelles, on the outskirts of Paris.

He’s staying at a grim motel – Au Pavillon des Gatines. There’s a sign outside: 50 quid a night on Fridays and Saturdays.

It couldn’t be further from Centre Court at Wimbledon but it’s been his reality for a while. Sourcing the cheapest accommodation, cheapest flights, cheapest everything. Just to keep going. Just to keep his head above water.

The documentary, directed by Craig Speer, follows the Limerick native for two years as he desperately attempts to move towards the top-100 in the world and qualify for a Grand Slam.

Essentially, Barry is an itinerant, bouncing from location to location – some alluring, others not – racking up circuit points for between 40 – 45 weeks and doing it all on a shoestring budget. Well, comparatively.

He needs about €90,000 per year. And that’s not including the cost of a full-time coach. The money goes towards planes, trains, more grim motels, equipment, physios. And surviving.

Barry has a private sponsor who contributes about a third of those expenses. There’s also a small fund set aside for Ireland’s Davis Cup players – of which he is one. And there’s the prize money from the litany of tournaments he competes at. But not much.

At one event, where Barry is eliminated in the first round, he receives the sum total of €144.46. The year before, he won a tournament in Israel but the cheque didn’t even cover his travel costs.

When we meet him first, in January 2015, he does have a coach – Romain Jurd – who also moonlights as his room-mate, his psychologist and friend. Jurd watches Barry lose a lot and win occasionally. But during the year, his form slips dramatically and from a world ranking of 360, Barry nosedives. The pair part company and Barry is on his own again – researching flights, competitions, training camps.

His most constant companion is his gear-bag. And at the end of the year, a tournament win in Dubai sees him presented with a small, plastic trophy. But Barry doesn’t care. It’s a reminder that hard work pays off. It refocuses him and the following year sees far more positives, his highest-ever ranking and one of his finest ever displays at a tournament in the United States.

But, for the most part, there’s one step forward and – pretty quickly – another one back. For a brief moment, Wimbledon appears a genuine possibility. But, it doesn’t happen and just hours later he’s playing another first-round match at a tournament in Spain against a player ranked 1095th. When he’s beaten in the quarter-finals, he’s understandably angry, frustrated, bitter.

“I’m just not getting better fast enough,” he says.

“It’s frustrating. I’m 270 in the world. I’m 24 now. I could’ve been here when I was 21. It’s 11 months on the road and that’s what pisses me off. 11 months without a coach at a tournament with me.

I sound like your typical loser, making excuses, because I’m doing 101 things myself. And that’s just a pain in the arse.”

Barry chases, as he says himself – just one week of consistency. Over the course of seven days and a litany of matches, a tournament win can propel him up the rankings and give him the chance of appearing at a high-profile event, which can lead to increased prize money and the chance to invest in a full-time coach. The Holy Grail, of course, is to reach a Grand Slam.

It’s well within reach, as the documentary shows. But in the unrelenting grind, it’s easy to stumble and lose your way.


And, when you’re travelling the world on your own, staring out the window of another drab motel in a city you’ve forgotten the name of, the isolation and loneliness of the environment can break you down.

The Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith has a song called Travelling Alone. One of the lyrics goes:

“From the dreams at hand there’s no divorce”.

And that’s why Barry keeps at it. He hasn’t been worn down yet. He still has the aspirations. They haven’t disappeared.

And the special-offer motels and the plastic trophies will continue until he gets there.

Sam Barry: Beyond The Baseline, eir Sport 1, June 1st 9.30pm    

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

The Wizard of Oz! 17-year-old Simon Carr ready to seize his chance at Australian Open

Ireland’s McGee now only one win away from the main draw of Australian Open

About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

Read next: