Sunday, August 24, 2014

When Irish Eyes are Smiling

On the Rise (a tennis blog) is pleased to present this guest post by FOB* Patrick Rourke.
If you go to James McGee’s website, you see the headline: Life as an Irish Professional Tennis Player. At first glimpse, this might seem like a glamorous life, but for anyone who knows McGee’s story, they would know that it’s anything but. For those who are unfamiliar with James’ remarkable story, I recommend you visit his site:, before you continue reading this article.
First off, I should start with how I got to know James McGee the player, then the person, and now to the point where I am honored to call him a friend. I first came across James’ blog in late 2012, as I was watching one of his matches in the Toyota Challenger. At first, I was merely looking through his biography with simple curiosity, as I do with most players I have never come across. However, as I read his blog posts, I was struck by his passion, his work ethic and the effervescent personality that came through his blog. What started as an interest in a fellow Irishman grew into an interest in James McGee the person, so I sent him an email. To be honest, I didn’t expect him to respond, and I thought if he did it would read something like this:
“Dear Patrick,
Thanks for the support. 
Regards, James.”
However, the response I received was completely different; in fact, James’ reply was longer than my initial email. On top of that, he went so far as to apologize for the lack of content in his email (there was plenty), and mentioned he would follow up even further once he was off the road (he did). And just like that, a new fan was born.
Over the next couple of years, I followed James’ results as he trekked across the globe, interacting with him frequently on Twitter and to a lesser extent, email. Korea, Egypt, Syria, and Gabon are not the glamourous destinations that you see Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal traveling to, but that’s where McGee went. He didn’t go for the money; he went in spite of it. He went because he loves tennis. He went because he had to: if you’re going to climb the tennis ladder, you have to pay your dues. Well let me tell you this, James paid his dues a long, long, long time ago. But he kept paying them, hoping, praying that one day it would pay off.
At the end of 2012, James McGee was ranked #242 in the world. He had yet to appear in the main draw of an ATP World Tour event, or even make an appearance in the final of a Challenger. His career earnings were less than $100,000. To put that into perspective, the current world #244, Amir Weintraub, someone the same age as McGee, had made over triple that, nearly $300,000. Not to mention the support (or lack thereof) that McGee received. While almost every player accepts a wild card into at least some tournaments, McGee has never received one. Journeymen, young guns and everyone in between receive wild cards, in fact, it’s hard not to. With over 100 Challenger and nearly 50 ATP events a year and 4 WC’s available in most, the odds are you’re going to receive one…eventually. But with only one professional event in Ireland, McGee’s chances of receiving the tennis equivalent of a “free lunch” were nearly impossible. To compound his difficulties, he received next to no funding from the Irish Sports Council or Tennis Ireland. Yes, he was the Irish #1, yes, he proudly represented his country for years in Davis Cup (something else which he was failed to be adequately compensated for), and the funding would’ve been vital in his career development. Yet none came. In his entire junior and senior career, he received one bit of funding from Tennis Ireland, “a small payment in 2010 that would’ve lasted me less than one week on the tour.” The Irish Sports Council provided him with two grants in 2009 and 2010. That’s it.
With all these factors working against them, many players would’ve chucked in the proverbial towel. Some due to a lack of desire, but most due to a lack of options: it was a losing proposition, there’s no two ways around that. But not James McGee: he doubled down and worked even harder, knowing that he could do it. It would be on his own, but nobody could stop him from working towards his dream. Thanks in part to a humbling blog post he wrote in 2013, McGee picked up a number of sponsors as the New Year rolled around. Ezetop, Tutti Frutti, and The Irish Sports Council (FINALLY!) stepped up to the plate. But perhaps most importantly, a private benefactor in Ireland stepped up, allowing James to travel with a coach at least some of the time, a crucial piece in his development this year. As James said “it’s amazing what can happen in your life when someone believes in you.” I say it’s amazing what can happen in your life when you believe in yourself as much as James McGee believes in himself.
2014 started off remarkably well for McGee, beating 3 top 240 players on his way to the semifinals in New Caledonia. Up a set and a break, he served for a spot in the finals, but ended up falling in three to Canada's Steven Diez. The pressure undoubtedly got to him. But McGee cannot be blamed for this, as he had more pressure on him than any other player out there. When you’re playing with no sponsors, no funding, you’re playing for a lot more than the points, you’re playing for your livelihood. In his first round of qualifying for the Australian Open he fell in two tight sets 6&5, to eventual qualifier Jimmy Wang. It was a promising sign though, a sign of things to come later on. Another Challenger semifinal came in late April in Tallahassee, and McGee was sitting close to a career high ranking heading into the French Open. 
At Roland Garros, McGee scored two huge scalps, beating Norbert Gombos and Guido Pella. In fact, the Pella match can’t be accurately described by saying he “beat” Pella: he destroyed him. Formerly ranked as high as #75 in the world and boasting a 248-140 lifetime record on clay, Pella was the heavy favorite. But McGee didn’t let the long odds stop him from fighting, he never has. Although he fell to Andrea Arnaboldi in the FQR, McGee once again proved himself on the big stage, he was coming. He just needed his breakthrough.
That breakthrough almost came in London at Queen’s Club, as he made another run to the final round of qualifying, knocking off former world junior #1 Borna Coric and former world #33 Alex Bogomolov Jr. However, in the final qualifying round, McGee fell to Daniel Brands 7-5 in the third. Still no breakthrough.  
After Wimbledon qualifying, I had the pleasure of meeting James at my home tournament in Winnetka. I was initially planning on housing James, but he decided that I would probably spend too much time bugging him so he opted for different housing (only kidding, his coach had sorted housing long before I came along). After he completed a practice set with Evgeny Donskoy I had the pleasure of meeting James, who was even nicer than I anticipated. He recalled topics of our Twitter and email conversations from long ago, and took a genuine interest in getting to know me. If I had any doubts about James McGee the person, they were eliminated there. The gracious competitor I saw on court, the friendly person I saw on Twitter, that wasn’t an act; that was James McGee. McGee bowed out in the Round of 16 in two tight sets against Tim Smyczek, but he continued his fine form throughout the summer, reaching the semifinal in Granby and putting on one of the most impressive Challenger performances I’ve ever seen in Lexington, in a 0&1 demolition of Austin Krajicek, who, believe it or not, did not play poorly. 

Lexington brought McGee to a new career high, 188, but still, his big breakthrough had not come.
At US Open Qualifying, McGee could not have been handed a better draw. Norbert Gombos, Austin Krajicek, Ze Zhang, Mate Delic, Gonzalo Lama, Laurynas Grigelis and Yuki Bhambri were the other seven competitors in his section. It wouldn’t be easy, but McGee had avoided the big names. This was his chance.
I saw James practicing Wednesday morning, and my interaction with him, for me, summed up who he is as a person. I was standing outside the gate with close to 100 fans under the age of 14 (all waiting for Dimitrov's and Wawrinka’s autographs). Despite the crowd, he looked in my direction and immediately looked up “Patrick!” he exclaimed. Having only met me in person once, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least if McGee didn’t remember my face. But he did, and not only that, he remembered our entire conversation. Right off the bat, he asked me about my wisdom teeth (I had mentioned to him in Winnetka that I was getting them removed later that week), and enquired about a number of other things. We must have talked for 15 minutes - right after his grueling practice on the day of his first round qualifying match. We talked about his chances against Lama and the draw in general, and James was incredibly upbeat. He knew it would be tough, but he also liked his chances: “if I play the way I have been playing I know I’ve got a shot,” he said with a grin. Finally, as the conversation wound down, McGee told me that if he qualified he’d sort me out with tickets for the following week. Here I am, someone who he has met twice, and his first concern is doing something special for me. I can’t think of many people that kind.
His first round match against Gonzalo Lama of Chile was, being completely blunt, a demolition. Winning by a score of 6-1, 6-1 in under an hour, it was the most lopsided match I watched all week. McGee’s powerful groundstrokes and aggressive baseline style proved too much for Lama, more comfortable on clay, and he was quickly into the second round.
His match against Yuki Bhambri, the 30th seed, proved to be a much sterner test. He dropped the first set, but got off to a quick start in the second and managed to hold serve throughout, sending the match to a third set. However McGee, nerves showing, got off to a shaky start, getting broken early in the set. Although he kept pushing Bhambri on his service games, McGee couldn’t get the vital break. Up 5-4, Bhambri served for the match, and that was when the Irishman began to work his magic. He did what he’s done his whole life: he dug in, he fought, and he broke Bhambri. 5-5. A hold and suddenly it was the Indian who was serving to stay in it. McGee played three stellar points to give himself triple match point, and then Bhambri did something that McGee would never do: he seemingly gave up. Maybe it was a reoccurrence of the injury that had kept him out for months, maybe it was sheer exhaustion, but for the last two points, he was gone, he threw in the towel before the match was over.
This moment highlighted just how remarkable McGee is, no matter what the score, no matter the conditions, no matter his health; he has never tanked as much as a point. He has never thrown in the towel. Those who follow tennis (particularly Challengers and Futures) closely, see this all too often, but not from James McGee. It was this mentality that took him to this point, and it would be that mentality that would help him make his breakthrough. If he ever got there.
Friday. Not before 1:00 EST on Court 8. This was McGee’s chance. As I watched him practice with Konstantin Kravchuk just hours before his match, I was impressed, he was ready. But when he walked out on the court, things changed. It might’ve been the pressure, it might’ve been his opponent, but something got to McGee, and he lost the first set to Ze Zhang in a flash. 6-0, just like that. But just as he has always done when the chips are down, he fought harder than before. A break to love and suddenly we had a match on our hands. Helped by the crowd, McGee raced out to a 3-1 lead. On Twitter, I knocked the fans all week, for the most part, they were terrible. But they rallied behind the Irishman, cheering and chanting “let’s go James,” on changeovers. A British woman sitting next to me who knew her stuff (I never caught her name, so if you’re reading this I apologize!), queried me as to why he had such strong support. It was the loudest she’d heard all week, and I would be inclined to agree. Maybe it was simply because he was an Irishman in New York, but I’m sure if those in the stands knew his story they’d be cheering even louder. McGee fought off 2 break points in the 8th game of the set, and served it out to love. 6-4. We’re going three. Again.

As the match went deeper, the crowd grew. As the crowd grew, the crowd got louder. As the crowd got louder, James McGee got more confidence. First game of the third: just like that, a break! “Five holds, that’s all I’m asking for,” I thought, but I knew it wouldn’t be so simple. McGee managed to consolidate the break, but not before staving off two break points. 2-0. Four more holds. An easy hold for Zhang and it was 2-1. In his next service game McGee had to fight off another two break points, but once again, he survived. 3-1. Three more holds. Another easy hold for Zhang and it was 3-2. By this point, McGee tightened up and Zhang, with nothing to lose, started hitting flat and free. His flat forehand was one of the best shots I’d seen all week. He had nothing to lose, McGee had everything to lose.
Finally, a hold for McGee without facing any break points! 4-2. And then, in a flash, 5-2! Where’d that come from? A break to love and James McGee was going to serve for a spot in the main draw of not just his first grand slam, but his first ATP tournament! As he walked to the baseline, he grabbed his right quad. Oh no. Cramps. He dropped the first point and then grabbed his left leg. Double oh no. Break point for Zhang. 5-3. Suddenly, his comfortable cushion was gone. An easy hold and it is 5-4. Here we go again.
As McGee walked to serve right in front of me, he almost fell over. He was cramping, big time. He had to hold here, there was no way he could stay on the court more than a couple minutes. Three big serves and it was triple match point. But it wasn’t over; I knew it wasn’t that easy. It wasn’t that easy in Noumea, it wasn’t that easy at 5-2, and it certainly wasn’t going to be easy now. As I stood up to give James encouragement, I looked to my right and there was Coach Jeff Salzenstein, iPhone in hand, prepared to film the moment of glory. “Oh no Jeff,” I thought, “Please no. You’re going to jinx him.” 40-15. 40-30. A double fault and suddenly the phone goes away. An ace and it’s a fourth match point. Back comes the phone. “STOP IT JEFF, STOP IT RIGHT NOW YOU’RE GOING TO JINX HIM.” Naturally, I didn’t say that, I sat there and prayed. Back to deuce. Yet another ace from McGee and it was a fifth match point. And there was Jeff with the phone again! At this point I was ready to run over to Jeff, take his phone and throw it as far as I could. Instead, I shouted out encouragement to James. “Your terms,” I said. His entire life he had operated on his terms, not always by choice, but now it was his choice. Close it out…your terms…bounce, bounce, bounce, WHAM! An ace! “Game set and match McGee, 0-6, 6-4, 6-4.” I would try to describe the following two minutes to you, but thankfully I didn’t throw Jeff’s phone, and he got it all on video. I’ll let that speak for itself.
After the match, the crowd swarmed James, begging for autographs and pictures. He could barely walk, but he did it all, and with a smile. I hung back, off to the side of the court with Lisa Stone, who I had the pleasure of meeting. We discussed a number of things, but most notably, our admiration for James. His perseverance, his attitude, and most of all: James McGee the person. After he finished up with his new-found fans, James made his way over to us. We exchanged hugs and snapped pictures, and all smiled as he reveled in the moment. A career defining moment. No, a life changing moment. The cramps were gone, perhaps the stress caused them, but James conquered them, just like he conquered the numerous other seemingly insurmountable obstacles he faced in his life.
As I walked back to the locker room with James (who was stopping every couple feet to accept congratulations from someone), he asked me an incredible question: “Which way to the locker room?” Perhaps he was caught up in the moment, maybe that caused him to forget. Or maybe he didn’t know. After all, it was his first time at the tournament, and it was there it hit me; this was totally foreign to him. This was a far cry from Gabon, where he was just a year ago. He wasn’t accustomed to player passes and fancy locker rooms.
Rain began falling, and while waiting it out I eavesdropped on the conversations around me. They were all centered on the humble man from Dublin. The reaction I received on Twitter to the pictures I tweeted was staggering, I had no idea how many people James had impacted, and I’m not sure he did either. For the next 24 hours, my timeline was filled with players congratulating James, everyone from Denis Kudla to Sergiy Stakhovsky.
As I reflected on the match, I found it difficult to explain my emotions. It was undoubtedly the most emotional I’ve ever been at a sporting event. I’ve seen my beloved Blackhawks win Stanley Cups; I’ve seen my beloved Cubs collapse right before my eyes. I’ve been overjoyed, I’ve been crushed, but I’ve never quite felt what I felt on Court 8 on Friday. And now, 48 hours later, I still don’t know how to describe it. The closest I can come is to say I saw a person achieve their dreams in front of my eyes. But I don’t think that describes it. Nothing can describe the struggles that James McGee has gone through, the matches in far-flung reaches of the globe; the hotels that make the Motel 6 look like the Four Seasons. And maybe that’s what made it so special, that it was something completely beyond words. Something that I have never seen before and never will see again. But I don’t know.
As James sealed the match, I will not lie to you, I teared up. As I said above, I’m not entirely sure I can explain why, but I did. And I’m not a crier. As I was walking to the locker room with James I told him this, and as I did, he stopped in his place and looked at me if I had three eyes “Why the heck would you cry?” he said with a laugh and a good-natured punch on the arm. That jovial, not too serious, and downright likable attitude is what drew me to McGee in the first place, and it’s what’s attracted so many to his story this week. His reward for his efforts? Seeing his name in the draw alongside Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, with the opportunity to showcase his talents to the world on a TV Court at the US Open.
What a time to break through.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of Mr. Rourke alone. Except for the really brilliant ones.
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