Pro Tennis - Davis Cup - Coaching in Ireland by John McGahon

John is one of Ireland's top coaches and has also represented Ireland at Davis Cup level.  Recently John brought one of his top juniors, Maria Perla Biansumba, to the Junior Orange Bowl in Florida.  I asked John to put a piece together for me on his experiences and what I got back was an exceptional read.

Here it is:
As soon as I qualified as a PE teacher (PGCE awarded by Exeter University) in 2004 I set about achieving my childhood dream of playing on the men's professional tennis circuit.

My first step was to contact Mike Walker who had taken over the international high performance tennis academy in Wrexham which was formerly operated by legendary coach John Hicks of Great Britain. My hope was to base myself in his centre for the foreseeable future. As you can imagine, securing finance on the pro tour can be a major struggle for a player. So, I was very grateful to Mike and head coach Dan Sanders because they helped subsidise my training by giving me the opportunity to coach at their prestigious academy. At times, this regime was tough on the body because after completing 5 hours training I would coach for 3 hours daily each day during the week at the academy. On Friday nights I would fly home to Dundalk to run a junior programme during Saturdays and Sundays. Sunday nights were spent on the ferry back to Holyhead and 8am start on Mondays came around very quickly.

Although this routine definitely wasn't easy, it did help me finance myself in order to travel the world in search of ATP world ranking points. To be honest, I loved every second of it!! A typical block would be 6-8 weeks of training and coaching in order to build up my funds which were sometimes supplemented by success at men's internal money events in Great Britain. Then, I would get away on planned trips to compete in Asia/Africa/Europe.

Working at Wrexham International Tennis Academy not only helped me develop as a professional tennis player but it also helped develop me as a tennis coach because I worked under the watchful eyes of Dan Sanders, Mike Walker and John Hicks. I got the opportunity to work with some of Britains best junior athletes who competed at the boys and girls junior Wimbledon championships as well as working with some top senior athletes in Britain including top ranked British player at the time Matthew Smith #295 ATP and David Brewer from Scotland who was a top 10 junior world ranked player and top 800 ATP world ranked athlete. On some occasions I would travel as a travelling coach to futures events which again helped my overall development as a player and a coach.
At Bisham Abbey (Wrexhams sister academy in London) I even got to spar with the infamous Tim Henman whose highest ranking was no.4 in the world. Tim was extremely welcoming and I am very grateful to Mike for giving me the opportunity to train with Tim. I was certainly learning two trades at once at my time in Great Britain.

During a trip to Africa in 2007, I qualified and reached the Quarter Finals of a $15,000 Futures event (in Sudan) for the first time before being defeated by Adam Vejmelka from Czech Republic(ATP# 247) on a score of 6-4 3-6 6-4. This netted me my first world ranking points at the age of 24 and I was on the board in the men's ATP race!

In the same year, after improving my ranking in both singles and doubles I was selected to play Davis Cup for Ireland. I played Davis Cup for the first time alongside Conor Niland- my childhood friend and Irelands best ever tennis player to date- and the Sorensen brothers, Kevin & Louk. With a ranking of No.3 in Ireland (behind Conor Niland and Louk Sorensen) and an ATP world ranking of #891 and No.#679 in doubles, I teamed up in doubles with Kevin Sorensen. Seán Sorensen was the captain of our team offering a wealth of knowledge having played in the world group of Davis Cup.
(From left -right: Louk Sorensen, Conor Niland, Sean Sorensen, Kevin Sorensen & John McGahon)

In 2007, Ireland was in Group 3 of the Davis Cup which meant that we had to compete throughout the week in a round robin against various different countries throughout Europe/ Africa. I was honoured and a bit overwhelmed at being selected to play for my country. I recorded a 4-2 win loss record in the week with my partner Kevin in doubles. I lost in singles against Turkeys  Ergun Zorlu  2-6 6-3 13-11. I was gutted at losing this match but went back out with Kevin to take the win in doubles and another point for the Irish team. As we topped our group and thereby gained promotion to Group 2 Davis Cup, we celebrated in style by all jumping on a team of horses and trekking out to view the pyramids in Cairo.  Paddy Hickey, the Irish journalist who travelled to cover for the trip, got the raw deal and ended up by having to ride a wild horse over the Egyptian sand dunes for over an hour!

Sean Sorensen (left) & Paddy Hickey (Right)

Over the next two years, I continued this pattern of blocks of training/coaching followed by weeks on the road when I competed in the Davis Cup, the Four Nations and on the men's professional tour. (To the right: Winning Nigeria $15,000+H doubles with Ed Seator from Great Britain)

 As with all athletes, some incredible highs in my tennis career were followed by some lows. I remember one tough month in 2008 in Morocco after getting food poisoning in week 2 where I played a talented Australian (John Millman) and I decided to go to Elche Futures in Alicante, Spain on the way back before Ireland faced Ukraine in the Davis Cup. In Elche, I faced Inigo Cervantes, then one of Spain's top junior tennis players and a recent top 130 ATP player . After losing the first set which lasted 1hr 20mins in a tie break in 40 degree heat on the red clay of Spain, I snapped my ankle and had a full body cramp on court. I not only ended up on a drip at the hospital in Alicante but also lost my place for the following week on the Davis Cup team. Playing for Ireland was always a lifelong goal for me and I am very proud to say I have over 18 senior tennis caps between Davis Cup & Four Nations.

At the latter stages of my professional career, Garry Cahill (National Coach) invited me and Barry King- ex-pro and Davis Cup player- to start off an Irish senior squad at DCU National Tennis Centre. This was a great venture and helped me to base myself at home in Ireland. I also believe that it also helped develop younger up and coming players such as Ciarán Fitzgerald (currently based at San Diego University) and Sam Barry (currently Ireland's no.3 ranked player today behind James McGee and Louk Sorensen).

 In 2009, I decided to go full time into tennis coaching at my home club at Dundalk.  In addition, I planned to complete my Tennis Ireland coaching qualifications, levels 1 ,2 & 3, as well as the Director of Tennis course. As the manager and Director of Tennis at Dundalk Tennis Club, my priority was to put Dundalk Tennis on the map of Irish tennis. This ambition required considerable planning and work as we had no juniors featuring at the top end of Irish tennis and few players competing in tournaments throughout Ireland. Moreover, tennis in schools was non-existent. There were no leagues for junior or senior tennis players to play externally. Straight away, I set up a team of coaches to liaise with local schools to help boost tennis participation and to establish up a North/South league. Former Tennis Ireland President Lyn Jameson, from Portadown helped to create more inter club relations and competition, of course. This league is still running thanks to a dedicated committee and continues to grow in team numbers. Also I hosted Open Days at my club and invited Conor Niland as well as the late Elena Baltacha from Great Britain to boost local attention and press coverage. My aim was to attract new members for our increasingly active club. On St Patricks Day, I and our academy join the colourful march through the streets of Dundalk. This is an ongoing annual event when we celebrate both our club and the day. (Conor Niland near left & Elena Baltacha right)

 With a lot of encouragement and help from Rosa Stevens at Leinster Tennis I took on the job as referee of the junior Louth Open which is now known as the Fyffes Junior Louth Open. I have organised this tournament for the past five years in order to raise the profile of our club and attract increasing numbers of players to our tournament. Becoming a tournament referee certainly was a strange feeling at the beginning and has given me a deeper appreciation of effort required of people who run tournaments. Honestly, it's not the one week of the tournament that hurts. It is managing the weeks leading up to it! Massive effort required!

Marching through Dundalk
St Patricks Day parade 2014

 In my five years of being head coach and Director of Tennis at Dundalk our team has developed over 40 players who have competed at national junior match plays/ Indoor Nationals at Riverview and in Fitzwilliam Open.Over the course of very few years, our performance academy has developed two home grown national No.1s, a Tennis Europe U-14 champion, seven internationally ranked juniors, nine interpro players, two national champions, two Leinster grandprix winners, three national matchplay runner ups, a Fed Cup panel player, Fed Cup playoff finalist, a junior U-14 Orange Bowl World Championship main draw player, and several aspiring professional and US scholarship college players. MacXtennisAcademy attracts juniors players from the four provinces of Ireland and abroad. Thats not bad for a club that works outdoors on astro courts for 12 months of the year.

I have been extremely fortunate to have benefitted from some great coaches and inspiring people from the beginning of my tennis experience. In addition to my extremely supportive mum, Jim Pringle- my coach in Dundalk- gave me great grounding as a tennis player and has always helped me on and off court to do this day (we work together at the dundalk tennis academy).  Michael Nugent, from Malahide, took me under his wing as I developed and gave me the belief in becoming a pro tennis player. Paul Casey was the national coach when I was growing up and he helped me develop as a junior player and a pro tennis athlete when he took Irelands top juniors abroad under the auspices of Tennis Ireland. He has helped me as a player and as a coach. I am very happy and proud that we work together today in my performance academy at Dundalk and together we arrange international and national trips with our top juniors. Paul isn't just a great coach, he is a great friend. His energy, passion for the game and wealth of knowledge is invaluable. I can't describe how grateful I am to have met Paul, and everything he has done for me as a player and a coach.                                                    
(Picture to right: Paul Casey with players from Dundalk & Glenageary)

 I also head up Leinster Tennis coaching and interpro teams with another great Irish coach and ex-pro Davis Cup athlete, Stephen Nugent. Stephen was Ireland's best junior when we were growing up and he competed at junior Wimbledon and the US Open. These days, we work together with some of Irelands top junior tennis athletes and we head up the junior Irish Tri-Nations teams. In 2014, we won the Junior Tri Nations on home soil at Lansdowne, in Dublin. Stephen led the U-18s, Lynsey McCullough was in charge of the U-12s and the U-14s were my team.  That win was an extremely proud moment for us, as coaches.

(TriNations:Stephen Nugent /John McGahon far left & Lynsey McCullough Far right)

 Recently I travelled to the junior Orange bowl 2014 which was an amazing experience for both Maria Perla Biansumba as a player and me as a coach. This was the first time for both of us to be apart of an event like this.
More than 1,450 players from more than 74 countries & the U.S.,  travel to South Florida to compete in one of the most prestigious world-recognized junior tournaments on the amateur tennis circuit. 
The list of champions could comprise its own Hall of Fame and includes Bjorn Borg, Jim Courier, Elena Dementieva, Chris Evert, Roger Federer, Mary Joe Fernandez, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick and Gabriela Sabatini. Other participants include Arthur Ashe, Boris Becker, Jennifer Capriati, Jimmy Connors and Yannick Noah.
The purpose of this trip was to show Maria the best athletes in the world. More importantly it was for Maria to watch these players. Watch their body language, how they composed themselves and how much they immersed themselves in tennis.
Everyday we immersed ourselves in tennis and spent everyday practicing. We travelled to warm up events around Florida and evaluated matches on a daily basis to see how we could improve for the next day. The trip gave Maria a taste of how a full time tennis athlete lives.

In the main draw of the Orange bowl, Maria faced top 20 US U-14 girl Mackenzie Clarke. Maria lost the match 6-1 6-4, but she didn't lose her fight or her heart. Maria fought like a warrior and represented the Irish with pride. I was very proud of Maria for our whole trip. She wanted to learn more and more everyday, and as a coach I feel this is the best quality you can ask for from a student. When a player gives all out effort, they are a champion in my eyes.

(John McGahon & Marie Perla Biansumba)

I feel very privileged to work in the tennis sector in Ireland. I honestly love working with players who have dreams and who aspire to improve daily. Our team ethos is very simple when we coach it is work hard, maximise effort and act professionally. These are the fundament elements that form the cornerstones of my work at Leinster Tennis and in MacXTennisAcademy in Dundalk.