Do you know who made the most finals this season? Not one of the big three. Not Danill Medvedev, despite the fact that he’s just made six in a row. It’s a 25-year-old Australian Christopher O’Connell. By defeating Kevin King on Saturday, he made his thirteenth final of the season.
Christopher O’Connell and Health issues
Peaking at no.219 back in 2017, O’Connell was slowly making strides towards the top of the game. Stopped for a moment by a severe case of pneumonia, the Australian seemed good to go to make 2018 his breakthrough season. However, a serious knee injury has kept him off the court for six months, furthermore leading to a not so good starting position for 2019.
Christopher O’Connell was one of the victims of the controversial ATP/ITF ranking reform. His ranking of 600 didn’t allow him to get into ATP Challenger Tour main draws and the qualifying for these events was reduced to only four players. The Australian had no other choice than to start playing ITF World Tennis Tour events, piling up points for the newly-found ITF Rankings. He started his journey playing multiple events in his home country, reaching two finals at M15 events in Mornington. He lost both of them to Harry Bouchier.
Finding his second home
With not enough events in Australia, O’Connell decided to look for his chances in Europe. During his previous visits to the old continent, the 25-year-old made friends with a Serbian tennis player, Danilo Petrovic. A Belgrade resident, Petrovic came up with a good solution to O’Connell’s problem.
The Australian decided to follow the advice and make the capital of Serbia his second home. With Belgrade as a training base, it was easier for him to travel to Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Hungary.
Turkey was his first travel destination. O’Connell reached three straight finals in M15 events in Antalya. He lost the first two to Ronald Slobodchikov and Christopher Heyman but lifted the curse against Jonas Forejtek. Another stop on his journey was a tour of ITF events in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a big success as the Australian made three consecutive finals once more, taking one title. It was an M25 event in Doboj (he defeated Botic Van De Zandschulp).
After a two-week break, Christopher O’Connell captured another M15 title in Balatonmandi, Hungary. His ITF ranking was slowly getting to a spot where he could get accepted to some Challengers (a few spots in the main draw of each Challenger events were assigned to the best players from the ITF Rankings). His tenth final of the year at Casinalbo, Italy was the last ITF event he played this season.
Going up a tier in style
The transition to the ATP Challenger Tour wasn’t easy. In his first two events at San Benedetto and Tampere, O’Connell fell in his second matches. The turning point came after the Sopot Open, not really because of the Australian’s result there (lost 2-6 1-6 to Aslan Karatsev in the third round).
The round before, O’Connell played Spanish legend, former world no.5 Tommy Robredo. Although in the twilight of his career, Robredo’s experience and uncanny sense of adapting to what’s going on the court is allowing him to win many matches on the ATP Challenger Tour (captured two titles in June, Poznan and Parma). It’s even tougher to beat Robredo in Sopot, where the crowd remembers his two titles back when this seaside town used to hold an ATP World Tour event. A win like that had to be big for the Australian’s confidence. He came out with all guns firing and didn’t lose that momentum for one moment on the way to a 6-4 7-6 victory.
Another reason was the ITF’s decision to go back to one ranking system. All the points O’Connell would have received for his ten finals were granted to him on the 5th of August. That meant he had jumped over 160 places in the ATP Rankings and would soon be able to get directly accepted ATP Challenger Tour events.
A week later, O’Connell got his first final at this level at Cordenons. On the road to the championship match, the Australian lost just two sets (to Francisco Cerundolo and junior Grand Slam champion Chun-Hsin Tseng). The last obstacle was another maiden finalist, Jeremy Jahn. O’Connell coped better with the pressure and played a very clean match to win 7-5 6-2. The 80 points that were assigned to the winner at Cordenons allowed him to go up in the ATP Rankings by another 93 spots.
Keeping up the good form
Following two less successful starts, O’Connell arrived at a Challenger event in Sibiu. This time as a seed, he only had to play five matches to possibly win the title. Maxime Hamou, his second round opponent, held a 7-6 4-1 lead. The Australian saved two match points on serve to force a tie-break and ultimately prevailed 6-2 in the decider. He got better as the tournament went on and made his way to his 12th final of the year. Waiting there was his good friend Danilo Petrovic, who defeated O’Connell 6-4 6-2.
That’s how we arrive in Fairfield this week, where O’Connell has just made another Challenger final. The Australian didn’t lose a single set on the way, overcoming the likes of Kevin King and the 17-year-old British sensation Jack Draper.
It’s a tough road
O’Connell’s 2019 story shows a problem of players playing lower-tier events. The aforementioned Daniil Medvedev has played 75 singles matches this season and played one more on Sunday vs Alexander Zverev. That’s the most on the main tour and having won 58 of them, he deservedly finds himself at no.4 in the ATP Rankings.
Although the Australian has obviously played against much lesser opposition, his example shows too things:
- The ITF reform was a complete failure, which forced him to stay for months at a level he didn’t belong to
- Progressing through the lower-tier events takes a lot of matches and a lot of time
Christopher O’Connell’s final today will be his 93rd singles match of the season. Despite having won an astonishing 70 of them, the Australian will find himself at only around no.150 in the ATP Rankings if he wins today. For all the effort, he only got over 40,000$ in prize money this season. Even adding a couple of grand for Fairfield, that’s around a US Open main draw first round payout.
Perhaps the best response to all this came from O’Connell himself:
“The players know I have the talent required to go to the next level. After all, talent will never die.”
Christopher O’Connell Main Photo: