Interview | Richard Fahey

Tennis Ireland's CEO on the strength of Irish clubs, the role of coaches and where Irish tennis should be in 2021

Richard Fahey
Richard Fahey presenting Tennis Ireland's Gold Standard Clubmark Award to Fiona MacCarthy, President of Ballinlough Tennis Club, Cork

By Stephen Higgins | 16 October 2017

On Crosscourt View, I've tried to provide an outlet for the leading voices in Irish tennis.

The site has featured interviews with former players Conor Niland and James Cluskey, current pros James McGee, Sam Barry and Jenny Claffey, and former ITF director Dave Miley.

This year, Ireland's governing body Tennis Ireland enacted a four year strategy for Irish tennis spearheaded by its new CEO, Richard Fahey.

For I believe the first time in his tenure, Fahey has given an extensive interview on a wide variety of issues in Irish tennis. And in the interest of fairness and I hope interest, I have left the transcription of our sitdown at Dublin City University largely intact.

Apart from some light cosmetic changes, the only parts that I have left out are whether Fahey could still beat Performance Director Garry Cahill in a singles match (he can't), and the question where he helped me locate Trackside tennis club (it's beside Bayside Dart station).

What made you want to take on the job of Tennis Ireland CEO?

“I’ve played tennis all my life. I started off in Trackside [a club in north Dublin]. My mum was a founding member of Trackside. I was a decent player, but I was the type of player who wasn’t playing in open tournaments.

‘I played in one open tournament as a junior - The Clontarf Open. Got to the semi-final. I actually beat [Performance Director at Tennis Ireland] Garry Cahill in the quarter-final which I keep reminding him of. In straight sets as well I’ll add.

‘...I really enjoy tennis. But tennis was my second sport. My first sport as a kid and in my teenage years that I specialised in was table tennis. So I played junior international for a number of years. But when table tennis finished around the end of April, then for the next four months it was tennis.

‘I happened to play in a number of clubs over my lifetime. Went from Trackside to Sutton, from Sutton then to Greystones, and from Greystones to more recently Portmarnock. I think tennis has given me a lot. It’s given me a lot in terms of friends that I have. In terms of a sport that’s a really enjoyable sport to play.

'So I’ve always had that interest in tennis...I went to college and ended up studying sports management in college as well. I’ve always been interested in sport. I’ve always wanted to work in sport. When I realised I wasn’t going to play for Liverpool or I wasn’t going to become no.1 in the world at table tennis, my pathway brought me to getting involved in the administration or in the organisation of sport.

...On his career before Tennis Ireland

‘I was lucky enough in terms of my career pathway. I worked for Dublin City Council for a couple of years as a sports development officer then got involved in the FAI. The FAI was a fantastic experience. I worked there for 15-16 years. I did everything that I set out to do in the FAI and I felt that it was time for a change.

‘At the time, the Tennis Ireland role, I knew it was coming up. I knew that it was going to come up in a period of time so I set about setting an objective to say that I would put my best foot forward for this and I did and I was lucky enough to get the job.

‘I saw a lot of similarities in terms of the sport that I saw when I went into football 15-16 years ago in terms of not getting its fair share of funding from a government point of view. I suppose in terms of the relationship between the clubs and the governing body - [it] probably wasn’t that great. And the relationship I suppose in terms of what was the function and the perception of how the organisation operated. The fact that we needed to do a lot of work in terms of developing our top players and on the facility side of things.

‘In essence, most sports are very similar in terms of their structure. You’ve got your clubs on the ground, you’ve got your provincial or your other affiliates, and you’ve got your governing body. So many of the issues cross different sports.

‘From a football point of view, the number one issue in clubs was facilities. How do we develop our facilities? How do we find the funding for it? How do we go about developing our facilities? I was also aware of that from a tennis point of view that for many tennis clubs that was the number one thing. How can we have a better club? How can we develop our facilities better?

‘I know that there’s an interdependence between a whole range of different things in order to have a successful sport. It’s not just the facilities. It’s the governance. How facilities are managed. How the club is managed. How the sport is promoted. When you get those foundations of the club or organisation in place, then how do you build on that?

‘How can you provide a pathway for, whether it’s a player or an administrator, to get to the level that they are capable of achieving? So they’re things that transcend not just tennis, but transcend across all the different sports. So I had a huge amount of experience in that from the FAI. I felt that it was something that I could bring to tennis with the background I had in sport.

At the start of your tenure, you visited clubs around the country. I presume you still do that. What did you want to find out?

'I had preconceived ideas and thoughts around the sport and I wanted to make sure that those ideas were correct.

'A lot of my tennis experience would have been in-and-around the Dublin area. I wanted to see if the issues that were affecting clubs in Dublin were some of the same issues that were affecting clubs, for example, in Carrick-on-Suir, Galway, Ballinlough or wherever.

'It was really important for me, coming into a new role like this, to assess the landscape of the sport. To get a better understanding of the issues that are affecting it. But also as well, to build relationships.

'One of the key roles of a CEO is to develop the stakeholder relationships and we’ve got a lot of stakeholders as a sport - whether that’s government, Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland or the branches. But the clubs are the most important stakeholder. Without the clubs we don’t have a game. And it was really important for me to go out and engage with those stakeholders.

'I’ve been to probably around 48-49 clubs at this stage...and I’ve had a really great reception from the clubs. They’ve really appreciated that I’ve taken the time to come down to listen to them [or] maybe point them in the right direction.

It’s really important to get out and meet the clubs and I’m lucky enough that we have a President as well this year, a guy called Clifford Carroll, who has really taken that on with gusto as well. I’d say every week he’s meeting at least three or four clubs. He’s just been going around.

'I think the clubs appreciate that. I mean for a number of clubs that I went to, they said “oh this is the first person that we’ve seen from Tennis Ireland in two or three or four or five years” or “we’ve never seen somebody from Tennis Ireland”. I’ve often pointed out to them that Conor O’Callaghan or Olwyn O’Toole, who are our development officers, they’re Tennis Ireland. And they go “oh yeah but we mean from head office”.

'So I think that people genuinely appreciate that we take the time to go down. We meet with them. Tell them that they’re doing a good job but if there are areas that they are maybe weak on, maybe struggling on, that we’re able to point them in the right direction.

What have you found to be the main issues that people in the clubs bring up?

'Look, facilities I think is one of them. I think funding. I think there are also issues in terms of...a mix of clubs. You have some clubs that are absolutely booming. I was out in Sandycove a few months back. They pretty much have a waiting list to join. Then you go to a club like Trackside where they are struggling to try and get members and retain members. The issues are wide and varied you know.

'I met the president of Galway Tennis Club recently and they were just opening up their new dome. But they were also talking about some of their players who are coming up to the national academy and the costs involved in all that kind of stuff.

'So there is a huge range of different things. I’ve had clubs ringing me up saying that they’re struggling to get the council to renew their lease on their land. So I’ve had to engage with the councils and you know we’ve got a number of those across the line.

I was at a meeting the other night with Dublin City Council. Dublin City Council invest a significant amount of money into tennis in the city. They’ve just invested money in Bushy Park. They invested money in Herbert Park [and] Elm Field. You know it’s a case of how can we make sure that those facilities are being utilised and the capital investment they put in is realised in more people playing the sport.

'So that’s what we’ve got to try and do and that’s what I’ve been trying to do since I came in - really advocating on behalf of our clubs, advocating for our sport.

What do you think is working well in Irish tennis?

'I think in general our clubs are working well. If you look at the volunteer base that we have in our clubs, I think that is really something to be proud of. You look at our clubs up and down the country. You look at the facilities that they have in place in general.

There’s always room for improvement but I think that our clubs and our volunteers, what they do week in and week out in terms of their internal competitions, in terms of hosting open tournaments, that for me I think is the biggest strength that we have as a sport.

'I’d like to think that that will always be a big strength that we have - the quality of our clubs. Our role is really to try and make them stronger and to help them to help themselves.

What needs the most attention? What are the areas that you are looking at?

'As part of our strategy - I mean I’ve a few thoughts - but I think that it’s important that we gave people the chance to let us know what are the issues that they feel really need action.

'At the workshops that we’ve been to and organised, there’s a number of themes that have been highlighted there.

'Our competitions. More appropriate competitions. The ratio of our coaching session to competition is out of skew. If you take football or gaelic for example, you might have two training sessions for every competition or competitive opportunity.

'For tennis, you could go through a stage where you could play for three or four months and then not have any competition. Do you know what I mean?

'So for me, I think that’s one of the issues that we have. We need to look at our competitions. We need to look at our competitions for our juniors, seniors and vets. I think that’s a big one.

'If you take Dublin and I suppose the region around it, they are relatively spoiled in terms of that interclub competition that the [Dublin Lawn Tennis Council] do such a fantastic job on. You’ve got the Munster Leagues and they do a fantastic job. Belfast do a fantastic job.

'But there are large swathes of the country where you don’t have that interclub competition, so I see that as being something that we absolutely need to look at. So I think competitions is one of the things.

'...One of the things that came up throughout the processes were that ‘elitist’ view that tennis has. I suppose it’s just a tradition that’s been there.

'It was said to me at a meeting I had with a committee in Sport Ireland. One of the members said to me "tennis is an elitist sport" and I’m saying listen, it’s not an elitist sport. It is no more elitist than football, golf or any other sport.

'You do have clubs that are in strong middle class areas that are full, so probably there isn’t that ability to just rock up and join. But then you’ve got clubs like Trackside or Portmarnock or Ballinlough where they are not elitist. They are the same people that play football, Gaelic, rugby or whatever other sport that’s there.

'I think that perception is something that we need to work on but again that can be tackled by getting our sport more visible and getting people to see our sport. It is as fun and as enjoyable and as easy to join as it is to play rugby, soccer, gaelic or any other sport.

...The role of coaches

‘When I talk about the clubs. You’ve got the volunteers that are there, you know the people who are running the clubs, but coaches also play a really important part in the development of our sport.

‘They have a crucial role to play. That was one of the things that was coming out of the workshops as well in terms of the role of the coach and how the coach can help us to develop our sport.

‘It’s not just about developing the players but it’s about the experience that they can provide for young players. No more than an adult wouldn’t like to stand and just go through coaching sessions all the time, they want to compete. They want to play against other people. They want to play against their friends. They want to play. Kids are the same.

'Coaches will have to look at how they can get involved more in developing the offering, developing the value proposition for clubs. That’s an area that we would like to work closely with them.

'We had Kenneth Bastiaens over this weekend at the [Tennis Coach Ireland] conference and one of his presentations was exactly around that. How the coach can get more involved within the club to organise and drive appropriate competition within the club setting. There is a business for coaches there as well around that.

'They obviously have to make a livelihood. It doesn’t just have to be around coaching and them standing on one side of the net and kids on the other side. They have a really major role to play.

Can work be done to reduce the number of astro turf courts in Ireland as a percentage?

‘Yes. I think it can be done. The culture in Ireland over the years has been to put down the artificial turf and I think there is an understanding that it is not the best surface for developing players.

‘I mean it was interesting at the workshop in South Dublin. People were talking about we need to change it because it’s for our elite players. But I would be very much aware that it is also for young people who are starting the sport. The slower, higher bounce is much more conducive to an enjoyable introduction to the sport.

‘We do have an issue in terms of the weather but our climate is changing. You can see that we do have drier and milder winters for the most part and I think that the opportunity is there.

'I was in with Minister Brendan Griffin two weeks ago and I highlighted that this was an area that we need the Department of Sport’s support on. We would like to see where clubs are. I’m not saying that every single court needs to change surface to clay or hybrid clay or whatever, but clubs like Sutton for example, where they might have thirteen or fourteen courts, there’s no reason why a couple of those couldn’t be changed.

‘If that’s what the club wants, well then we should be very supportive of that. If that means that they are making an application to the sports capital programme, that we be very supportive of that and we would work with them, and for them, to engage with the Department of Sport to ensure that that would be seen and prioritised. And I think that’s something that we need to do.

‘I have to commend the minister, he was very supportive. I suppose tennis wouldn’t be a sport that he would have known a huge amount about but when we left that meeting with him last week, he had a much greater understanding of the scale of the sport in Ireland. He had a much greater understanding of the benefits of the sport in Ireland in terms of its ability to provide lifelong involvement in a sport. The ability to attract male as well as female participants.

'They are real strengths that we have as a sport that sports like soccer, GAA and rugby can’t provide and never will be able to provide. So I was trying to make the point to him that we need to be supported for providing those opportunities for lifelong involvement.

Can we host a higher level tournament in Dublin than a Future?

‘Yeah, I think we can. There’s a number of reasons why we would like to host those type of events whether it’s a Future, a Challenger or an ATP event.

‘Obviously, one of them is around the visibility of the sport. You know we got 130,000 people watching a Futures event [The Irish Open finals day] on a Saturday afternoon which is fantastic.

‘...You know, ideally, we would love to make a profit out of it, but the reality is running those events cost money. The main reason for doing that is to provide our players with an opportunity to earn points on home soil.

‘You generally find that if you look at the performance of Sinead [Lohan], Simon [Carr] and Sam Barry, they did well at the Irish Open. They did as good in that tournament as they had done in any Futures event.

‘You know it’s difficult when you go and play a Futures event in Turkey, Egypt, Italy or wherever else like that because you’re away from home. You’re away from your environment. There tends to be smaller crowds. There’s no home support. Those things lift players. I think that’s something there.

‘If we were to host an ATP event I mean realistically, at this moment in time, what players would we have qualifying for it? So that’s taking away one of the major reasons why we would host that.

‘I would like to get to a situation where maybe in a year or two, if we had the likes of, whether it’s Sam [Barry], James [McGee], Simon [Carr], Georgia Drummy or whoever else, that if they were competing on the Challenger Tour, then that would be the right time to host a Challenger event and to invest in that and to put our time into doing that.

‘I think certainly for 2018, Futures is where we’re at at this moment in time because I think that will give the likes of Simon, [the Bothwell brothers Peter and Sam] and the guys that opportunity for a bit of a legup to get onto the next level. And then when they reach that next level, then we’ll be looking at it.

‘We can host an ATP [event] I believe out in Abbotstown. I believe there’s an opportunity to do that there. The indoor arena that’s down there in terms of, not the athletics area but the indoor arena, is an area that I’m looking at and I’ve spoken to [Sport Ireland CEO] John Treacy very briefly about hosting Davis Cup there if we were to get a Davis Cup tie.

'I think it’s fantastic. I think you can really do a lot in that arena. You’ve got lights, you’ve got scoreboards, you can really make it an event. Plus, as well you’ve got all the parking. It makes it so much easier from a catering point of view, ticketing, all that kind of stuff.

‘We’ve traditionally hosted in our clubs, and those clubs have been great hosts, but in order to move that to the next level, we need to look at these type of venues. And it may work, it may not work. I hope it does work and if we do get a home draw - I think it’s unlikely to get a home draw this time around - I’d like to give it a go. Everything is there. The seating is there. They’re all things that we’ve had to bring into a venue. They’re all costs but they would all be in place.

‘So certainly in terms of the athletics track, you could fit four or five courts in there no problem. So then if you had your final one in the main indoor arena, I think you could easily host an ATP event. I’ve spoken to Garry [Cahill] about it and I think it’s something that we’d like to do over the next number of years.

‘I’ve had one or two sponsors [tell me that they're] not really interested in getting involved in our sport at grassroots level, or it’s just not big enough in terms of the profile that they’re getting but they said that if you are ever hosting an ATP Tour event, we’d be interested in doing that. But the timing has to be right.

‘We would like to see our players being able to participate in it but not just participate in it, go and compete in it and I think that would be the time to do that.

You’ve partnered with Pinta consultancy company to run workshops around the country. I was at the one held in South Dublin. How have they gone?

'Yeah, really good. Really well attended in Dublin. [We] really got good attendance in Connaught as well. Connaught was one of the really good ones because it’s probably the province where there’s probably the least engagement I suppose. We’ve got nine clubs that are there. Nine good clubs. I was really delighted with the response that we got down there.

'If you take across the country, there were very similar themes that were coming up. [That] also pleases me as well because it means that we can focus on those three or four or five things and make a big difference.

'They’re not three or four or five things that I want or feel is necessary, they’re the three or four or five things that the tennis community want. I think that there was also a shared vision in terms of where they wanted to be in 2021. From that point of view, that’s given me a very good understanding of where the tennis community want to be.

'The way the format of the workshops is done, the tennis community are providing the solutions about how we get there and that was really what I wanted to try and do. I didn’t want it to be my plan. I didn’t want it to be Richard Fahey’s plan. It’s the tennis community’s plan.

'They’ve outlined the level that they want to get to. With Pinta, we’ve been able to facilitate from them in terms of the things that need to happen in order to get there.

'So our role is now to take all those, to set out those objectives and to deliver on them.

When is the report going to be published?

'Well the next steering group meeting will be mid November. So basically the survey is going to close I think on the 25th of October.

'We’re still getting submissions in. Pinta are collating all of the information and they’ll be putting them into key themes and that will be presented to our steering group in mid November.

'At that stage then, the steering group will say "yeah, these are the key things that we need to look at" and that will be developed further and then we’ll meet again as a steering group in December.

'Hopefully, everything going well, we will be able to present to the board in January. But there’s a number of things that we need to do. There’s a number of dependencies there.

'We’re obviously linking in with Sport Ireland. We’re linking in with the Department of Sport, the ITF etc. If we can get all of those stakeholders behind us, and agreeable to our strategy, agreeable to our plan.

'If they come back and say they want us to change, well then that may push us back but we’re aiming for January for the board to approve the strategy. Then we can launch it and get stuck into the work.

'But we’re already planning things like budgets and all that kind of stuff. And we’re already planning some of our programmes and activities based on the feedback that’s come back from those workshops.

Have you learned anything surprising in your tenure that maybe you didn’t expect before you went in?

'I think it might have been you [at the South Dublin workshop] that said that we’re an island of tennis islands. I thought that was a really good way of summing up tennis in Ireland at the moment.

'Everybody’s off doing their own thing and what I would like to do is get more coordination between the branches. We’re making big efforts with that, particularly on the Board...I’ve been engaging with the branches.

'A simple thing like I give a summary report from the board that goes out to each of the branches. Everybody’s clear in the branches about what we’re looking at as a Board.

'Obviously then getting out and visiting the clubs - basically outlining where everybody’s place is in the sport and even the consultation workshops - the whole reason for getting out.

'Look, we probably could have sat down and wrote the strategy and probably have seventy or eighty percent of things that were coming back but when it comes to the implementation of that strategy, Tennis Ireland staff or the branches can’t do it on their own.

'Everybody’s going to need to be working together to implement that strategy so it’s really important that we get everybody mobilised, get everybody working together. Everybody with the same destination and everybody working towards that destination and that’s what we’re going to try and do.

I was at the workshop in South Dublin. It was great meeting lots of similarly passionate tennis people. A section of the meeting posed the question of what the attendees think tennis in Ireland should look like in 2021. So I’m going to ask you that question. What do you want tennis to look like in Ireland in four or five years time?

'Well, I think I might have answered that earlier on. We’ve asked that question for a reason. What I want tennis in Ireland to look like in four years' time or 2021 is a vision of what the tennis community want. There’s no point in me wanting something different than what the tennis community want.

'The tennis community have outlined in the workshops that they want the sport to be more visible. They want more people playing. They want to have success, to be a successful sport. They want more funding. They want better facilities. They want all of those things.

'I am absolutely focused on delivering for them and that’s really what I’m focused on. I suppose I share that vision with them. That’s their vision. My role as chief executive is to deliver for our clubs, deliver for the tennis community. If that’s their vision, that’s my vision as well and we’ve got to do that.

'I suppose the expertise that I bring in is how that vision can be made reality. As I’ve said, in my previous roles, I would have helped to bring about a lot of that change in football. When I was working in the FAI, we went from six development officers when I went in the first day to the technical department of which I was managing. When I left that five or six years later, we had over 100 development officers.

'So we had a vision then. We went out and did the same thing. We did these consultation workshops around the country. We got a vision from the football community about where they wanted football to be and I think, by and large, a huge amount of progress has been made in the FAI around that. I like to think that I played a major role in that.

'I think I can bring that experience across to tennis to help the tennis community realise that vision."