Interview | Sam Barry
The Irish no.2 on his encouraging 2016 season, Davis Cup demons and the 'stupid' cost of tennis strings
By Stephen Higgins | 20 December 2016
"I’d love to play on Arthur Ashe one day. That’s the big one. A night session on Arthur Ashe. Everytime I see it on the telly I get goosebumps. That’s the thing that excites me.'
I'm always fascinated by what drives professional sportspeople to persist, to sacrifice and suffer. Is it something abstract like 'be the best they can be' or something tangible like Sam Barry's goal.
The Irish no.2 reached a career high ranking of 255 at the end of November after his best season to date in the professional ranks. Barry finished the season with a record of 44-29 and two Futures titles in Sunderland (singles) and Plaisir (doubles w. Peter Kobelt).
'There's been loads of really good performances. There's been a couple of standout weeks here and there. But there's been a small bit of inconsistency in the summer as well. I found myself on my own for almost four months with no coach for my training weeks and no coach on the road with me...from March through to almost July where I had four days with a coach in Belgium.'
'Obviously my performances dipped. In the midst of that I had a really good run in Bangkok and I've played some good tennis since then, but when you go a third of your year practicing by yourself all the time, competing by yourself all the time it's going to halt your progress a small bit. I think I felt the effects of that going in to the back end of the summer and that's why financial backing is so important.'
Sadly, it's a common refrain from Irish players. Every player I've interviewed: from James McGee to Jenny Claffey, James Cluskey, Conor Niland and now Sam have mentioned the struggles of balancing the books on tour. Chasing your tennis dreams can be perilous to your bank account.
'At 280 in the world I’ve earned $21,000 this year. That’s not a huge amount of money' Barry explains to me on the balcony of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club near the close of the 2016 season.
There is a huge disparity in winnings from the summit of the game down through the world's top 400 as you can see in this table:
ATP Rankings as of December 20th, 2016
The world no.100, Yoshishito Nishioka, has earned less than 2% of what Andy Murray has amassed in 2016. As for the world no. 400, Ante Pavic, it's 0.03%! So how does Barry make ends meet?
'I’ve got one private benefactor who’s helped me for the last four or five years which has really enabled me to play on the tour full stop. The expenses are huge coming from Ireland. There are no tournaments here so I have to travel every week. If you want to do things properly you’ve got to have a coach with you.'
Over a year it’s going to cost you $100,000. If you’re trying to do things properly.
Apart from the obvious expenses of travel, accomodation, coaches and physios, small costs mount when you piece it all together.
'You wouldn’t believe how much it costs stringing your racquets! But it adds up, it adds up. You’re getting two racquets strung for every match and I might play 70 or 80 matches this year. So that’s another stupid expense.'
However, like his compatriot and friend James McGee, Barry is cognisant of how people may react to these complaints. For the Limerick native it's about honesty rather than seeking pity.
'I’ve always found it hard to strike that balance between talking candidly about how much tennis costs and not sounding like the world’s against me because it’s absolutely not.'
High points this year include an appearance in the qualifies of Dubai, where he lost to former top 10 player Mikhail Youzhny, and Toronto, where he succumbed to Ryan Harrison 6-7 5-7. He also made the final of a challenger in Bangkok, losing out 6-7 4-6 to Australia's James Duckworth in the final.
According to Barry, the margins between the top players are sometimes miniscule.
'It’s more different off the court than it is on the court. I mean the guys are good. Marcos Baghdatis is 30 in the world for a reason...and Ryan Harrison is back in the top 100 for a reason. And I don’t claim to be better than those guys but the margins are so small and the depth of men’s tennis is so dense.'
'You look at James McGee. He won a Challenger [at Cary] and then he loses the first round of qualies the next week. Not because he played badly, not because of anything else, just because there’s a load of really good guys. Damn right he deserves to be inside the top 200 but there are guys that are 350 or 360 on a given day that can beat a guy inside 100. They can beat a guy inside 50. People don’t notice that.'
The 24-year-old played former Australian Open finalist Marco Baghdatis on Davis Cup duty over the summer but the Cypriot wasn't as formidable an opponent as a little known Belarusian.
'Once you get inside a certain level, everyone’s really good. I played [Dzmitry Zhyrmont] in the semis of a 25K in Sweden and he beat me 3 & 2. He cleaned me out. And I’ve played Baghdatis and Youzhny this year and he was better than both of them on that day. So they’re the margins in tennis.'
The Irish no.2's chief goal, like Conor Niland before him and James McGee presently, is breaking the top 100. 'Movement' is the area of his game that garners the most amount of training.
'The biggest focus for me if there was one thing is movement. But then just my game style in general. Tactically, being really clear about what I’m doing on the court. I don’t have too many holes in my game. All my strokes are pretty decent. I like to think I serve well. It’s just about finding a way to put it all together...more often and in a more aggressive manner.'
His game certainly ran smoothly in Estonia in March with five victories in singles and doubles for Ireland in their unsuccessful Group III play-off bid. With McGee absent, Barry was the squad's talisman and he finally feels comfortable representing his country.
'For four years after [my debut against Hungary in 2012] I was shite. I was shite. I was just brutal. Every time I played at home I’d lay an egg on the court. I felt really uncomfortable playing for Ireland. I just struggled with putting too much pressure on myself and self-belief and playing in front of my parents.'
'The last two Davis Cup ties I think I’ve managed a bit better. Even though I didn’t play great, I enjoyed the ones in South Africa far better even though I lost in four sets. It was a tough match but I played some decent stuff. And then this time in Estonia, I did myself justice with my performances and I’d like to think that that’s how it’s going to be from now on. I’m a bit more mature and a bit more self confident than I was as a fragile teenager or fella in his early twenties.'
It's difficult to conclude a conversation with a top Irish professional without discussing the myriad problems in the national tennis scene. While accepting that Tennis Ireland has a lot of issues on its plate, Barry feels that there is far too little support for the Irish players on tour.
'If their goal is to have top 100 players: do I think that they’re going about it the right way? No. They’re not because there’s no support for any of them and there are no top 100 players as a result. And there’s no really good bunch of juniors. There’s no anything.'
'There’s just a bunch of guys that are really passionate about tennis and have become pretty good because they’re from families that have supported them. That’s all spread around. If you go to every good player in Ireland, you go back to the roots. You go into his house and there’s a family that’s supported them. They’re not coming from this system. There is no system.'
The interview was conducted before the controversial appointment of Richard Fahey as Tennis Ireland's new CEO. Fahey, an executive at the Football Association of Ireland, was chosen over the well regarded former ITF director of tennis development Dave Miley for the top job.
Fahey has a very difficult job ahead, particularly when it comes to developing high performance players. It's an area that the national governing body is failing at according to the Irish no.2.
'If they’re trying to produce professional tennis players or look after the ones they have, they’re not really doing it.'
As regards his own plans, Barry will do pre-season in Belgium before hopefully heading to Australia for the start of the 2017 season. Gathering the necessary funding to stay competitive on tour remains a top concern for the 24-year-old.
'It’s a tough one because you have to invest in yourself to climb up the rankings. If you’re cutting corners you’re going to be found out. If they’re in a Ferrari, you’re not going to catch them in a Toyota!"
When the original article was published, a person from the National Academy disputed parts of the interview pertaining to the Irish system. While I have since removed Facebook comments from the revamped site, I thought in the interest of balance that I should provide the original response as is:
"Few points need to made re - this article. Fundamentally we all agree more investment is needed in Irish tennis and it is a constant battle for all involved. Only a handful of federations can afford to fund players at the required level. Tennis Ireland receive very little government support for performance tennis.'
'Sam Barry spent eleven years in the Irish system, supported by tennis Ireland and indeed coached privately within the system until 21/22 years and was top 300 at this stage, he also received travel support during this time,this should be recognised. Conor Niland reached his highest ranking of 129 within the system.'
'The quote re "no groups top juniors" tennis Ireland will have two juniors in the Australian open 2017 ( one main and one younger in Qualies .We will also see other juniors achieving this over the coming years. Of course we would love more investment but the system is not lacking motivated, driven people to succeed, with many of the ex players back in the system as coaches."