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Interview | Jenny Claffey

The new Irish no.1 Jenny Claffey spoke to me about winning titles, learning from losing and her goals for 2016

Irish tennis player Jenny Claffey
Image | Rob Cherry

By Stephen Higgins | 4 December 2015

It’s the end of November when I meet the new Irish women's no.1 Jenny Claffey. As we take our seats in a Dublin cafe, such is the life of a professional player, I’m not even sure if the 25-year-old is done for the season.

‘I’m finished now’ Claffey confirms. ‘The main reason for finishing is so I’ll have a break for two weeks now and then I’ll have a pre-season and start earlier in January. Because I only started on tour in April this year, I have those three months to really play a lot of tournaments and build up a lot of points.’

The Dubliner only joined the ITF Tour, the rung below the WTA Tour, in March but the idea of being a professional tennis player had been long in gestation.

Born into a tennis family in Blackrock, Claffey’s mother Breeda is a tennis coach and her four brothers have played the game to varying degrees of success. Jenny, the youngest, learned to play at Elm Park in Donnybrook and from a young age showed natural talent on the court.

Claffey was Irish no.1 at u12, u14 and u16 levels and attempting to turn a passion into a career seemed inevitable by her mid-teens. But it was not to be.

'I tore my rotator cuff when I was 16. Then, I slowly got back after six months from that and got glandular fever - [another] five months. I came back again and injured my shoulder again. The same injury.'

These ailments derailed any plans Claffey had to join the tour after school, so she studied Economics and Spanish at University College Dublin. Coaching and some Fed Cup appearances for Ireland kept her involved in the sport during her college years. Upon graduation, there was inevitable uncertainty and then a belated opportunity.

‘After college I was thinking “what am I going to do?”. I have a degree. I have my coaching course. I’m kind of at a crossroads. And then I thought, sure I’ll go into coaching because I have to get back into tennis. So I went back after an injury, and at the start of this year [2015], the end of January, that was when I really said I’m going to give [playing] a go.’

Claffey saved as much as she could to prepare for the hefty financial demands of the tour. That's not to mention the physical work.

‘I hadn’t even been training properly before [January], just physically. I was always into staying fit and the gym, I had that little base anyway. I decided to give it eight weeks before my first tournament. I started training the end of February and went till the end of March to play my first event.’

She reached the quarter-finals of her first tournament, an ITF $10,000 held at El Kantaoui, Tunisia. It was some start but getting to the last eight was difficult, with nerves her most formidable adversary.

‘The first match was the most nerve wracking thing…I’ll never forget it. I lost the first set 6-2. I remember looking over to Jake [her physical trainer and boyfriend] and laughing because I just couldn’t hit a ball in the court I was so nervous.’

‘I remember throwing the ball up on my serve and having to catch it because my hand was shaking. I went to the toilet after the first set and just looked at myself and said "you’re capable of so much more than this match right now, just get it together!" So I won [the following sets] 6-2 6-2 and winning that match was just the biggest relief I’ve ever felt…I loved that feeling of winning again.'

It would become a familiar sensation as the season progressed. Claffey captured three titles in her first 11 events on tour, one singles at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and two doubles partnering Kathinka Von Deichmann (El Kantaoui) and Bernard Tomic’s younger sister, Sara (also Sharm El-Sheikh).

When asked about the highlights of her debut campaign, Claffey unsurprisingly said the title victories. Her low points? 'Losing'.

'Losing, that's the toughest thing at the moment. Probably the lowest point for me so far has been the last two tournaments I played in where I lost in the first round. I had never lost in the first round before. I lost the first round of the first week after winning a tournament two weeks previous, so that was a huge shock to the system.'

Every athlete has to face and conquer defeat in order to gain success and the Dubliner feels that she has gained valuable insights from her losses.

'That’s the greatest thing about losing is you learn...I haven’t come off a court yet on tour losing where I haven’t said "I need to improve on this" or "this is what I need to get better at". It’s a constant work in progress.'

As for next year, while funding continues to be an issue for Claffey like so many Irish players, she is trying to focus on what she can control on court.

'I’m hoping to play 10s [$10,000 events] for the first three months because I don’t have any points to defend. So pick up as many points as I can, obviously my ranking will go up then. In April I’ll have to defend a few points but by then I want my ranking to be up high enough where I can start playing in 25s and then eventually 50s.'

'So depending on how the first three months go, that will kind of depict whether I play 25s or I play more 10s or I can move up and play the higher tournaments because that’s obviously my goal to be in the higher tier.'

National duty will also come calling as Ireland's Fed Cup team, relegated last season to Group III, start the 2016 campaign in April.

'Playing for my country is one of the most important things so I look forward to playing on the Fed Cup team again because it’s been two years since I’ve played.'

Currently 663 in the singles rankings, Claffey hopes to break the world's top 500 by April. Eventually, she hopes to break into the top 100 and compete at the grand slams. Lofty goals, but her first taste of tour life has certainly been encouraging.

‘When I look back now, if you had told me in April that you’re going to win a singles title, you’ll make five doubles finals, you’ll be the Irish no.1 by the end of the year, I think I probably would have taken that yeah!’