Match point

Published:
01/01/2022

 

He’s frequently described as an ‘Aussie battler’ in the media and while this title is often thrown around, it feels particularly apt to describe the grit and determination of local tennis star Chris O’Connell.

The last three years have been a rollercoaster ride for the born and bred Northern Beaches local. 

Despite battling bouts of illness and injury, the 27-year-old skyrocketed an incredible 1,000 spots in the ATP singles rankings to a career high of 111 in the world by late-2020.

The journey has seen him pocket back-to-back first round wins in the 2020/21 US Open, an incredible win over then world no. 37 Jan-Lennard Struff in the 2021 Australian Open, and knock out world no. 23 Jannik Sinner from last year’s Atlanta Open.

But it all started on a synthetic grass court at Terrey Hills Tennis Club at the age of four.

“My mum played casual tennis up in Terrey Hills, so I used to go to a daycare centre near there. But once I could start swinging a racket, she got me on to the court,” Chris recalls.

From joining in round-robins at the age six, it wasn’t long until he was playing competitions across the state and nationally before being accepted into the Australian Institute of Sport at 17 years old. 

“I was a really athletic as a kid and I just loved running around a tennis court and hitting the ball,” Chris says.

“It was interesting when I joined the AIS though. Being away from home at such a young age is pretty tough, also travelling and being overseas away from home. 

“It was challenging but exciting at the same time.”

The first hurdle came while with the AIS, however, after Chris suffered a stress fracture to his back. It saw him struck out of the game for 18 months. 

He then experienced two more major health setbacks in 2017 and 2018, catching pneumonia before struggling with knee tendonitis. 

The challenging few years pushed the Bayview local to make the tough decision to step away from tennis entirely, instead choosing to work in retail and clean boats on Pittwater.

“I just wanted to do something different and get my mind off it,” Chris explains.

“Going back to working in retail and cleaning boats just gave me a different perspective on it [tennis].”

While the break provided new clarity, by the end of 2018 he’d fallen out of the top 1,000. 

Despite this, his 2019 return to the Challenger Tour proved to be career defining for Chris, chalking up a phenomenal 84 wins and making 14 finals. 

The trajectory saw the then 25-year-old incredibly break the ranks of the top 200, before 2020 rolled in and the pandemic hit.

“It was tough, because I was on such a good run and I really thought I could break through even more in 2020. Then COVID hit and tennis stopped, and I felt like all my progress went backwards a little bit having to come home.”

When the ATP tour resumed in August 2020, it seemed a comfortable transition back onto the court for the Pittwater local, rapidly taking out two grand slam first round wins and facing up against some of the best in the world, including Russian Daniil Medvedev. 

“2021 was really interesting because I had a very good year, but then also I had very low moments,” he reveals. 

“When I was on court, I had really good results - like qualifying for Wimbledon and a good result in Atlanta. But through April and May, I was out completely injured with an ankle injury. And then, towards the back end of the year, I had another two months off with like a pubic injury. Then as soon as I returned, I caught COVID-19.”

Despite being fully vaccinated at the time, Chris says the virus ‘hit him pretty badly for about three weeks’. 

He’s now fully recovered and back on the Beaches, fitting in quick surfs and visits to friends between a vigorous fitness and training schedule. 

“It’s a big Australian summer of tennis coming up for me,” Chris says. 

“That’s my first goal this year – do well in the Australian Open and then break the top 100 as soon as possible.”

Author:
Stephanie Aikins, Editor-in-Chief, Peninsula Living Magazine

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