Australian Open 2022: Injury-cursed Sydney tennis player Chris O’Connell living his tennis dream at Melbourne Park
Chris O’Connell could so easily be a never-been, not the feel-good Australian Open fairytale he’s become this week.
In fact, without his father’s intervention, he might not have picked up a tennis racquet again after his late teenage years.
Sydney’s O’Connell, now 27, was a pint-sized kid who overcame those limitations with his obvious ability as a junior peer of Nick Kyrgios, Jordan Thompson and Luke Saville.
But there were serious problems once his belated growth spurt arrived.
O’Connell was in elite training programs by then and dedicating lots of time to tennis, and the combination resulted in him developing stress fractures in his back.
“I had close to two years away from the sport,” he told News Corp ahead of his third-round clash on Saturday with American serve-volleyer Maxime Cressy.
“I didn’t think I was going to play again, but it was really my dad who kept pushing.
“I went back to school, finished year 12 and, basically, once I stopped growing, the stress fractures went.”
O’Connell’s parents, Ian and Christine, are in Melbourne to witness their son’s greatest on-court moment, aware more than anyone of what he’s gone through to reach this point.
Them being there to watch his titanic upset of 13th-ranked Argentinian Diego Schwartzman on Thursday made it even more special.
They helped bankroll him – even though he well-meaningly insisted early on that he would do it himself – as various injury and health setbacks haunted his career.
O’Connell’s had every bit as much misfortune as the likes of Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jason Kubler, without his story being told as often.
After the stress fractures, he contracted pneumonia in mid-2017, then had six months off the next year because of knee tendinitis.
When times were toughest, O’Connell cleaned boats, worked in a clothes store and did some tennis coaching – but being so close to the sport while injured made that bittersweet.
He rebounded to win an extraordinary 82 matches in 2019, having his passport stamped in Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Czech Republic, Italy, Finland, Poland, Romania and the United States.
And all while travelling largely on his own.
He scored a wildcard into the 2020 Australian Open as a reward, his first time playing in the main draw at his home grand slam in three years.
But with O’Connell hurtling towards the top 100, and without many ranking points to defend, the Covid-19 pandemic landed a sledgehammer on his well-laid plans.
“I had no injury problems at all in 2019 – I was completely fit and healthy,” he said.
“The following year was the Covid year. That just robbed my momentum a little bit, because I was close to top 100 … so that hurt a lot.
“But, in saying that, everyone’s hurting from the Covid situation.”
Once the tour resumed properly last year, O’Connell’s injury curse returned.
An ankle setback cost him two months early in the year, osteitis pubis sidelined him for two more, then he caught Covid in his first tournament back in Italy.
O’Connell’s ranking suffered – he started this year at No.175, after peaking at 111 – but he found a kindred spirit in former Australian player Marinko Matosevic.
He initially shared Matosevic as a coach with Akira Santillan, but it’s now just them.
They’ve bonded to the point O’Connell said succeeding for Matosevic, and not just himself, had given him extra motivation.
“I’m talking to Marinko about tennis all the time – even when I’m not on court and I’m rehabbing – and I’m learning so much,” O’Connell said.
“I’ve got this understanding in my game I’ve never had before and he’s just simplified my game and I know what my weapons and weaknesses are now.
“He’s a very persistent guy. He can be a bit annoying at times, but it’s been really good for me.”
O’Connell’s dad still reminds him every now and then, especially on weeks such as this, that it was him who never let his tennis dream die.
“He occasionally does, but he’s a very big supporter – he’s great,” O’Connell said.
“I pretty much call him every day when I’m away from home.”
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