Christopher O’Connell struggled with knee tendonitis in early 2018. The Aussie, who until that point had never cracked the world’s Top 200, did not play a tournament for more than six months.
He used the time off to clean boats with his brother in Sydney.
“I felt I had a lot more to give with tennis, so my plan was always to play tennis again,” O’Connell said. “But I was just pretty frustrated with the consistent injuries, so I wanted to do something that didn’t involve tennis. I didn’t really want to coach tennis. I just cleaned boats.
“I was thinking, ‘Sweet, I don’t have to teach anyone to hit a forehand and I can just clean boats and relax.’ That’s what I did for the morning and afternoon and I’d ride my bike down to the bay. I did that from February to June. It was terrible money and everyone thought I was crazy because I could get more money coaching. But I just didn’t want to step on a tennis court.”
By December 2018, O’Connell fell out of the FedEx ATP Rankings. But ever since, the reserved O’Connell has been quietly improving to reach the best form of his life. Last year, the Aussie played 106 matches at all levels, winning his first two ATP Challenger Tour titles to finish 2019 at year-end World No. 119.
O’Connell competes at an ATP Challenger Tour event in Dallas this February. Photo Credit: Josh Meiseles
On Tuesday evening, in front of no fans, O’Connell won his first tour-level match, defeating former World No. 27 Laslo Djere 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(2), 6-4 to reach the second round of the US Open.
“I’m super pumped. The long break was tough, but it’s all worth it now, getting my first Grand Slam win,” O’Connell said. “It gives me a lot of confidence. I knew I had the level to beat some Top 100 players. I’ve [had] semi-rough draws the two times I played the Australian Open. To get a match that I thought I had a good chance of winning and then coming out and doing the job, it’s a super good feeling and I feel really confident at the moment.”
Entering the match, O’Connell’s career earnings totalled just more than $275,000. The victory against Djere guaranteed him a pay cheque of at least $100,000 at this event.
“I might get a car, I’m not too sure,” O’Connell said, visibly cracking a laugh behind his mask. “I haven’t got a car. But it all goes back into my tennis.”
O’Connell didn’t travel to New York with a coach or a physio, which he said was purely because Australians need to quarantine in a hotel upon returning home. According to Aussie star Alex de Minaur, it’s almost a fitting way for O’Connell to accomplish the feat considering all the hard work he’s put in on his own.
“He’s one of the nicest guys on Tour. He’s not very outspoken, so it’s unbelievable for him to just come out there and just get a win in these conditions, basically with no help at all,” De Minaur said. “He’s just doing everything by himself, so he deserves all the credit he can get.
“The resilience Chris has is second to none and what he did I can tell you right now I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
That’s coming from one of the grittiest players on the ATP Tour.
It has certainly been a long time coming for O’Connell, who has worked through physical issues throughout his career. For a stretch of nearly two years from April 2012 until January 2014, he did not play because of stress fractures in his lower back. In 2017, the Aussie caught pneumonia.
“It was a strange problem I was having. I could go on court and everything would be fine and I could hit for a half hour, but then I’d have to sleep for three hours. It was a tough one to manage,” O’Connell said. “I actually thought I was getting unfit, so I tried training even harder and it made it worse. At that point, I knew something was wrong with me.”
Now 26, O’Connell is arguably playing the best tennis of his life. His countrymen, like John Millman, couldn’t be happier.
“He deserves that. We all know the journey that he’s been on. It’s been incredible,” Millman said. “I think that he’s one of those guys in Australia, he’s gone overseas by himself, he put in the hard work, he’s gotten all those results pretty much off his own back and he’s really positioned himself to have a crack at that Top 100 and to be playing this level week-in and week-out.
“My respect for him is through the roof.”
Just more than two years on from cleaning boats back home, he will get to play 2019 US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev for a shot in the third round.
“I’d love to have a crack at him. He had an unbelievable year last year and he made the final here, so that would be awesome to have a crack against him,” O’Connell said. “I’ve just got to trust myself and back myself. I think I’ve got the shots to hurt him. I’ve watched him play plenty of times, but he hasn’t watched me play too much I’m guessing, so I guess that’s a positive.”
O’Connell wants fans to know, “I’m a pretty quiet dude. I work hard and I like to think I have that Aussie mentality of being tough.” Although he doesn’t say much, O’Connell spoke clearly when asked if he believes he could beat Medvedev.
– Josh Meiseles contributed to the reporting of this story.