Christopher O’Connell – the breakthrough continues

By Vanessa Taylor

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In the decade since Chris O’Connell turned pro, he’s spent a lot of time not playing tennis.

For 22 months, stretching from 2012 to early 2014, stress fractures in his lower back prevented him from picking up a racquet. Then, three years later, a bout of pneumonia required time off for recovery. He was not long back on the tour when, the following year, knee tendonitis forced him off for another six months.

This time, he left his tennis life to work with his brother cleaning boats on Pittwater Harbour. He resisted the obvious option to coach for a greater income…”I just didn’t want to step on a tennis court.”

Chris O'Connell playing in Bangkok
Chris O’Connell playing the 2015 Chang ITF in Bangkok.
Photo: Chatchai Somwat

Born and bred in Belrose on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, O’Connell spent most of his tennis career on the Futures and WTF tours, winning nine titles. Returning to tennis fit and healthy in 2019, he added titles in two Challenger events.

It was at a Challenger event in Virginia that year that O’Connell played Vasek Pospisi, losing but impressing the Canadian with his game. Pospisi was only playing a Challenger while making his way back to the main tour after injury. He started thinking about how his own career had made him millions, while O’Connell’s time on the minor tour was a constant struggle, despite winning 82 matches for the year and making 13 finals. Their meeting firmed Pospisi’s resolve to form the Professional Tennis Players Association.

For much of 2020, the pandemic forced O’Connell to rely on government income payments of AU$375 per week.

His breakthrough began with his first main tour level win. And he did it in a Slam. At the 2020 US Open, O’Connell defeated Laslo Đere in four sets, before going down to No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev 3, 2 & 4. He finished 2020 with his highest ranking, 111.

Chris O'Connell US Open 2021
Chris O’Connell in his match against Laslo Đere at the 2020 US Open.
Photo: Simon Bruty/USTA

He started this year by reaching the second round of the Great Ocean Road Open, a new warm up event for the Australian Open.

His improved form saw the Australian Open organisers grant him a wildcard. He made the most of it by upsetting higher ranked German Jan-Lennard Struff, before losing to Radu Albot.

At the French Open he lost 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-4 8-10 to American Tommy Paul in the first round, then fell to No. 13 Seed Gael Monfils at Wimbledon in another tight five setter, 6-4 2-6 7-6(5) 6-4 4-6.

It was at the Atlanta Open in July that O’Connell achieved the biggest win of his career. Having got through two matches in qualifying, he saw off Dennis Kudla 4-6 6-3 6-3 in the first round.

Chris O'Connell Atlanta Open 2021
Chris O’Connell playing Jannik Sinner. Photo: ATP

Next he faced Jannik Sinner, ranked 23 and seeded 2. In the brutal humidity, O’Connell served well and utilised his flowing single-handed backhand. He saved three set points, two on Sinner’s serve, and converted his set point in the tiebreak for 9-7.

O’Connell broke Sinner in the first game of the second set with his favourite shot, a massive forehand down the line. He went on to serve nine aces for the match, which he took with his third match point. The match over, he simply walked to the net and shook hands without overt celebration of his greatest achievement.

In his post-match interview he said, “I’m 27 now, so I need to start making some inroads. I feel like I’ve been playing forever.

“Early on I was pretty up and down with my training but over the past couple of years I’ve been really consistent and tried to stay injury free”.

Chris O'Connell playing Atlanta Open 2021
Chris O’Connell against John Isner. Photo: ATP

In his first ever quarter final he met John Isner. Great all-court play got O’Connell to 5-4 in the first, with Isner serving at 30-15 when the rain started falling.

After the delay, Isner returned to take the set 7-6(5). O’Connell reversed that outcome in the second set tiebreak but Isner won the third set 6-4 and went on to win the tournament for the sixth time.

A self-described “man of few words”, Chris O’Connell’s recent form has made a statement about his potential.

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