Interview | James Cluskey

After announcing his retirement in October, I caught up with James Cluskey to talk about his career, plans for the future and how he finally beat Pierre-Hugues Herbert

James Cluskey
Istanbul Challenger

By Stephen Higgins | 11 December 2015

After 17 tour titles, 10 Davis Cup rubbers and having reached a career-high doubles ranking of 145, James Cluskey retired in October. At the Las Vegas Challenger, Cluskey and his partner Darren Walsh, succumbed to Carsten Ball and Wimbledon sensation Dustin Brown in the quarter-finals.

Sin City saw the last of the Swords man on the professional tour. So how did the 29-year-old know it was time to call it a day?

“My ranking dropped a little bit, it was dropping, but that actually wasn’t the defining factor. I wasn’t enjoying the practice as much...the stuff you have to put in to keep at that level and to get to the next level.'

'I still loved the competing factor of playing against someone. You’re trying to win, working out a way to win. I haven’t lost that feeling, I still have that. But the day-to-day where you’re doing all the training that you have to do, I just wasn’t enjoying that as much and I felt it was a good time to do something else.'

Cluskey first took up a racquet aged six. He learned to play at his local club Swords, but truly developed as a teenager under the tutelage of Canadian coach Larry Jurovich. The Irish no.1 James McGee was also a member of Jurovich's squad during that period, and he posted a fine article on the experience on his site.

After winning the national singles U-18 title at Fitzwilliam, Cluskey took up a tennis scholarship at Louisiana State University where he studied Business Management. Initially a singles player, the Dubliner gravitated towards the doubles format in the United States.

'It was just results based. In college I was ranked three in doubles and I wasn’t really ranked in singles...I think I was just a better doubles player.'

Cluskey joined the professional tour in 2009 and has since enjoyed some special moments on court.

"First cap in Davis Cup at 19 against Slovenia. [Owen] Casey was the captain. That was really special...I grew up in Swords Tennis Club. I remember setting goals and it was one of [them]. In the tour events, I would say winning a couple of Challengers [Istanbul & Guimaraes]. Some of the players I’ve beaten as well. I kind of enjoy following how they’re doing (laughs). Like Herbert is one,"

'I played Herbert a lot actually because I played a lot in France. I kind of have the Vitus Gerulaitis story. I lost to him nine or ten times but I beat him the last time I played him so I’m like "no one beats me ten times in a row!"'

'The funny thing is I played him in the final of a Futures [in 2011]. [Conor] Niland was there at the end of his career. We lost ‘4 and ‘4 but we got smoked pretty much, one break each set. At the end of it Niland said to me, "I wouldn’t worry about it, that guy’s going to be winning doubles slams in about three years."'

Along with the Frenchman, Cluskey defeated a number of illustrious players on the doubles court including Philipp Petzschner, David Goffin, Teymuraz Gabashvili and John Peers.

The majority of his career was spent at the Futures/Challenger level, but he rose to the ATP Tour level on two occasions, both of them at Bastad, Sweden. It was in the Nordic country that he saw a crucial difference in attitude between the lower ranked players and the elite. But the lesson did not come on court.

'When I went to Bastad I watched [Fernando] Verdasco play [Nicolas] Almagro in singles. I was in the gym after the match and Verdasco lost in three sets...really tough first round. Verdasco came in the gym, he was unbelievably pissed off, and did a full workout. He was doing bike and treadmill. I was thinking "Jesus, that’s the difference!"'

Cluskey narrowly missed out on joining Verdasco and co. at Wimbledon in 2014, when he and partner Ruben Bemelmens were the alternate 17th team. That disappointment was 'really tough to take' but he finished the season strongly with a title (France F24) and two other finals in the winter.

The 2015 season also started well, as he reached the final of the USA F2 Futures alongside Frederik Nielsen in January. But aside from a semi-final run at April's Santos Challenger, where he was partnered by Davis Cup teammate David O'Hare, Cluskey struggled to post consecutive wins for the rest of the year.

The Dubliner finished the season without a doubles title for the first time in over six years.

And so came the decision to step away from the professional circuit and into a new career and it seems the business world, and the figures atop it, inspire him.

'I went to the Necker Cup [Richard Branson's annual pro-am tennis event] which was unbelievable...I was inspired meeting all these business people. Meeting Richard Branson one of my heroes. I've read all of his books.'

Cluskey feels that he has an 'entrepreneurial' spirit, but until he figures out what he truly wants, a racquet won't be far from his right hand.

'I’m going to coach in Castleknock, a little bit in Malahide, they were very good to me during my career, and then I’m coaching one national squad in DCU.'

As he bids farewell to life on tour, the 29-year-old is refreshingly content with his career.

'I don’t feel like I have that many regrets. I feel like I did the best that I could do. I pretty much became the best player I could become and I’m pretty happy with what I did."