International route to new career high

by Stephen Findlater

JAMES Cluskey is working out his schedule in a hotel room in Istanbul, trying to work out the logistics of getting to a tournament in Uzbekistan. A six-hour overnight taxi ride from the capital Tashkent, it looks an unlikely but potentially necessary pit-stop in his pursuit of playing at Wimbledon in 2014.

Now in his fourth year on the professional tennis circuit, the Swords native has been plotting this type of course to ever-increasing gains in recent times. So much so that the past two months have taken him from Portugal to Spain to Russia to Belarus, back to Spain and finally to Turkey.

His doubles world ranking has made a similar journey, bouncing all the way up to 145, an improvement of over 100 places in the past 18 months, a career high. Indeed, it is the highest any Irish-born player has ever attained.

It is a progression that, he reckons, is bringing him right in contention for Wimbledon next summer if he makes the right tournament choices, a difficult choice for Irishmen on the tour.

“Where we are from, we only have one home Futures tournament, the third tier of professional competition. In Britain, where my ranking is now I would have a wildcard to Wimbledon,” he told GazetteSport.

“I’m getting closer to some of the top ATP events – which is usually for players in the top 120 – so I’m not a million miles away. I’ve beaten some top 100 guys and I feel I am improving just being in the environment. I’ve been playing well and feeling good.”

Among his recent successes was a victory on the Challenge Tour with Austrian Max Neuchrist in Guimaraes; two weeks before that, he had become the first Irish player to win at this level of competition with France’s Fabrice Martin.

And he has developed a strong relationship with both players. In Kazan, Cluskey and Neuchrist reached the semi-finals, falling only to a team featuring Jurgen Zopp – a top 100 regular. A week later, playing with Martin, they claimed a Futures title in Belarus without dropping a set. Back with Neuchrist last week, they matched that feat in Spain.

That amount of travel, though, is not done without a decent amount of finance, something that the Swords man is helping to push on further. It is something that Irish Davis Cup team mate James McGee has spoken about in recent times with a particularly illustrative post on his personal website as well on George Hook’s show on Newstalk.

“There are a lot of people worse off than me so I don’t want to harp on about it but it is not easy. I try not to think about the finances too much because if you put pressure on yourself money wise, I won’t play as well.

“But it is very difficult and I don’t like to go on about it. [To get by] I coach clinics, Leinster tennis give me some help and so do Fitzwilliam LTC from a development fund.”

Both he and McGee did receive some funds from the Irish Sports Council too, something that has coincided with them both breaking new ground and rising to best ever world rankings.

But they have been forewarned that a repeat of this backing is unlikely in 2014 despite their performances. It does affect his preparations but he is determined to try and keep pushing for a first Grand Slam place.

“I started playing on the tour after college in 2010. I finished 370 in my first year and then ended 2011 at 280. Now I’m up to 145 and hopefully I can finish inside the top 150 this year.

“It’s good progression but, back to the money thing, I don’t know how much of next year I can play but my goal is Wimbledon.

“All my ranking points have come since this year’s Wimbledon so the aim is now to use that to get the best schedule up to next June and then get into the qualifiers or the main draw in London. That’s the big ambition,” said Cluskey.

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