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.”
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 former world No. 25 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.
He started this year by reaching the second round of the Great Ocean Road Open, a new warm up event for the Australian Open, and also played at Melbourne Park.
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 Roland Garros 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 what was then 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.
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 own 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”.
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 took 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.
UPDATE – January 2022
In 2022, Chris O’Connell received his fourth wildcard into the Australian Open through the support of Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt.
Despite the highlights of 2021, the year also saw him experience more health issues; the recurrence of an ankle injury, osteitis pubis and a bout of Covid-19. His ranking spiralled out to 175.
He put it all behind him in Melbourne to make the most of the wildcard.
In the first round, he defeated Frenchman Hugo Gaston in four sets before a straight sets victory over 13th seed Diego Schwartzman. Against the indefatigable Argentine, O’Connell was forced to grind out an 84 minute first set. He clinched it 8-6 in the tiebreak.
The second set progressed more quickly as the serve ruled. Out of nowhere at 4-4, O’Connell broke and with the raucous support of the local crowd, won the last 10 points of the set.
The lead see-sawed in the third set, but in the end O’Connell managed to break to Love and then serve it out.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had on a tennis court,” he said after the match. “I’ve been playing tennis since I was four. To have moments like this, it’s a dream come true.”
Next round O’Connell got his first encounter with serve/volley specialist Maxime Cressy, an ultra-tall huge-serving player similar to John Isner who ended O’Connell’s run in in the quarter-finals of Atlanta last year.
O’Connell gave it everything but lost in four as the American pelted down 28 aces and conjured a remarkable 71 winners.
Happily, with his partner Jason Kubler, O’Connell also made the third round of the Doubles.
His total prize money for the event was AU$280,250, meaning that he finally cracked the million dollar mark for his almost 11 years on the tour.