Interview | James McGee

Temporarily off tour after knee surgery, the Irish number one spoke to me about his best season to date, Davis Cup relegation and the trouble returning Sam Groth's serve

James McGee
Jacob Stuckey

By Stephen Higgins | 17 August 2015

Having last seen the Irish number one photographed on a hospital bed, I'm not sure what to expect when I meet James in a luxurious Dublin hotel in the middle of August.

The 28-year-old has taken time off from the tour to treat a knee ailment that has been troubling him the past few months.

"It was a meniscus tear to my knee...I didn’t think it was going to get any worse. I thought it was just going to sort of be the same but gradually over the last few months, especially during the last couple of months it got worse.'

'After Davis Cup in South Africa, I actually travelled to Gstaad to play the qualifying of that event. I practiced there for two days, and on the second day I just noticed that I wasn’t able to move as I usually move, and my hip was overcompensating because the knee wasn’t really functioning well. I just made the decision there and then to get the surgery.'

The keyhole surgery to McGee's left knee took place ten days before our interview, and it's good to see him walking freely, without crutches or any other support.

'Since [the surgery] it’s improved a lot. I’m now walking and I’m trying to build the strength up in my knee and in my quad muscles around it, and trying to get back on court in the next 2-3 weeks as long as I am fit and ready. From there, I'll train for a few weeks and get back on tour and playing some Challengers.'

While there is never an optimum time to get an injury, the timing seems particularly unfortunate for the Castleknock native, as 2015 has seen his best run of results and his highest ATP ranking of 146, achieved in June.

McGee reached two finals on the Challenger Tour, the circuit just below the main ATP Tour, at San Luis Potosi in Mexico and Savannah, Georgia. He also made a couple of deep runs during the grass court season, making the last four of Surbiton and Ilkey in England.

In the latter tournament, he was defeated by the American Denis Kudla. A couple of weeks later, Kudla reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, such are the fine margins of professional tennis.

McGee's last action on court was during Ireland's heavy loss to South Africa in their Davis Cup relegation tie. Ireland lost 5-0, and will return to Group III for the first time since 2007.

It was disappointing obviously to lose, you don’t like to lose any tie at all.'

'I think the biggest thing that the South Africans did better was serve and return. When it came to actual point play from the back of the court, we won just as much if not more points than them, but when it came to serve and return, they were the better team.'

'That partly goes down to the fact that they were probably used to the conditions more. The altitude had a big influence on the tie. If it was played at sea level, I’d be really curious to see how the tie would go but it wasn’t.'

'We have to adapt. Every week there’s different conditions no matter where you are. There’s altitude, there’s different balls, there’s wind, there’s rain, there’s whatever. I just think they did a really good job handling the altitude.'

2015 has seen McGee record a number of victories over Top 100 players including Damir Dzumhur, Paolo Lorenzi and Tim Smyczek. I'm fascinated by the subtle differences that separate players in the hundreds, from those in the top 50. Interestingly, James had this very discussion with Roger Federer at the Dubai ATP 500 event.

'I had lost that day, and the players' party was that evening. He was really engaging, really sincere. We talked about the difference between guys ranked 200 in the world and the guys ranked 70.'

'He was saying that there's very little difference, there's just consistency throughout the year - getting your fitness right, getting your schedule right, getting your game right and that's it. If you see a guy who's 200 in the world, and a guy who's 70, you're not going to see that much [difference].

'A lot of it comes down to off the court, what their programme's like, staying injury free, what their team is like. There's a lot of elements that go into making someone a Top 70, Top 50 or Top 10 player.'

One element that's present in a lot of elite players is a big first serve, and McGee has faced the biggest on tour.

'I played Sam Groth, and he's got the fastest serve in the world. It's just an absolute bullet. He's a big lad, 6' 4", really strong, just massive power behind his serve. I've returned that and it's tough. It's actually tough on the wrists, whenever you make contact with the ball you can feel it vibrating through your wrists. You've just got to have really good anticipation!'

An Aussie, Groth is currently well inside the Top 100. That's the next destination the well-travelled Irishman wants to visit, and he feel he has the means of transport:

'I know it’s attainable. I would not be satisfied if I got to 99 and I had to retire tomorrow. I don’t think that’s the right approach.'

Apart from the prestige, a place inside the Top 100 affords players direct entry into the grand slams, and the opportunity to compete in bigger ATP events.

The Irishman does not have a specific ranking goal in mind, as he is 'not necessarily fixated on a number.'

'...I’ve always said that I focus on getting better everyday. I’m not necessarily fixated on a number...because even when you get to that number, you always want to get higher. The minute you get there you want to go somewhere else, it’s just the nature of being an athlete.'

'My whole thing is just to do my best on a daily basis so that whenever I am finished, I can look back and say I gave it everything, I tried everything. I had all the right mental qualities, I pushed myself here, I asked that person this, I practiced this shot when I didn’t feel like practicing it, I went to the gym when I didn’t feel like going to the gym.'

'That for me is an achievement, whereas, what if I got to 90 in the world but I didn’t really give it everything. What if I held back on a few things? Then I would be carrying some regrets.'

'I think the biggest thing for me is not to carry any regrets when I’m finished. I'm just doing my best and trying to keep getting better."