A collaborative Letour Tale with Chris O’Connell (AUS)
Chris found himself sitting in the basement of Skindiver Tattoo Studio in Gothenburg, Sweden, at 1am in the morning on the 11th of August 2019. Now 25 years of age, Chris had never gotten a tattoo but as he arrived late into Gothenburg from the M15 Ystad Future with tour friend Sam Taylor, he felt the compulsive urge to act on his recent thoughts of getting one. He already knew where he wanted to position the tattoo but while sitting in the chair, he entered a frenzy of over analyzing the specific options with the tattoo artist. What size, thickness, colour? He stopped himself. This was the exact reason why he was about to get this tattoo in the first place.
Inside Skindiver Tattoo Studio, Gothenburg, Sweden
Due to a recurring stress fracture in his lower back, Chris had 18 months out injured at the end of 2011. He was just 17 at the time. His body couldn’t handle the heavy training loads during another growth spurt. Like a lot of players, Chris had worked extremely hard to get himself ready to compete on the men’s professional tour by the time he turned 18, so the timing wasn’t great, it never really is. Provoked by his time out of the game, he began to develop a hyper awareness to his body’s performance and response to training or competition which led to a core belief that his off-court training was to blame. A belief that would continue to strengthen as time went on.
He began testing out his newfound theory by slightly reducing the amount of weightlifting in his training program. It worked to a degree. He got himself back on court ready to compete during 2013 at the age of 19. Sporadic injuries continued to surface. At times they prevented him from either performing at his best or even forcing him to skip events all together. Learning from each injury, he continued to discover that the most plausible origin of all his injuries was still from off-court training. For him, it seemed to always occur whilst lifting weights or running, and in late 2017, Chris suffered another lengthy knee injury to his patella tendon during a preseason training block. It was the last straw. Chris and his father Ian O’Connell thoroughly investigated all the factors which had caused his injuries. They knew one certain fact; Chris had never injured himself on court.
“To us, most of the best players appear to be light, lean and flexible. Strong where it counts obviously, like in their core, hips and gluteus”.
A calculated decision was finally made to drop all core weightlifting and running exercises and a simple philosophy was then followed; Increase the volume of exercises that did not cause injury (i.e. tennis on court) and replace all off court exercises with a butt load of prehab, stretching, and body weight exercises. To say he was completely out of the gym is a lie, he was still in the gym but with an exclusive focus on injury prevention through predominantly flexibility and strength imbalance exercises. Chris dropped 6 kilos of muscle from 83kg to 77kg.
“Losing all that muscle weight, I felt incredible quick, loose, and my stamina was much higher. I also didn’t feel I as though I lost much strength either because I was on court a lot more, and by being on court more often I felt that I naturally strengthened the areas I needed to strengthen for playing tennis”.
Heading into 2019 at 1177 ATP, Chris had never felt so good about his body. Guess how many physical goals he set for himself? One! To keep his ass on tour injury free. That was it! No strength or conditioning testing. He was quietly confident that he could achieve his goal by using his new approach to manage his body. It would take intense daily routines to stay on track, something Chris knew he could execute for three reasons. Firstly, he whole heartedly believed in his new approach. Secondly, he was always good with routines, almost too good, semi OCD. Lastly, he loves music and knew that he would happily listen to an entire album each time he needed to do an injury prevention session.
He listened to a lot of music; it almost became an overload of injury prevention sessions. Before every breakfast, before every on-court session, after every on-court session, and before he went to sleep each night. The first thing Chris would do upon entering a hotel room was find a place to lay down his stretching towel and place all his TheraBand’s and trigger point balls on top of the towel. It was not only practical, but it also served as a visual reminder for him the entire week.
“Whether completely true or not, I remember being told that Djokovic is constantly stretching, even whilst talking with friends or waiting in line for food he would still be stretching his calve muscles or something. I really took that approach on board with me as I got back on tour again”.
What happens from here is ridonculous. Starting at the M15 Mornington Future AUS on the 18th of March 2019, Chris commences his run of 5 back to back final appearances in a row, winning in his fifth final at the M15 Antalya Future in Turkey. He then goes to Bosnia, wins the M25 Doboj Future, makes a final in M15 Brcko Future and backs it up with another final in the M25 Kiselijak Future. Next, he travels to Hungary where he wins the M15 Balatonalmadi Future and two weeks later makes another final in Italy at the M25 Cassinalbo Future. Chris’s game caught fire, and he was still feeling mentally and physically better than ever. There was however one slight problem.
All the daily routines began to intensify the feelings of perfectionism which was driven by his mild self-diagnosed OCD tendencies. Chris had seen an article on Facebook that was said to make OCD people cringe. In the article was a simple photo of an incomplete circle. Chris immediately began to imagine how a tattoo of an incomplete circle would mess with his head so bad. Huh! Could it be good for me? Hence why he was sitting in the basement of Skindiver Tattoo Studio. As he caught himself in the frenzy of debating the size, thickness and colour of the tattoo, he realized it was the perfectionist traits simply getting in the way again. Amid a frantic sentence, he turned his head, closed his eyes, and told the tattoo artist to draw any circle he wanted on his leg and to not close it, no more questions, just do it.
Chisel against Andrey Rublev, Australian Open 2020
Incomplete circle tattoo on left thigh, 21st January 2020
He now had almost 14 consecutive weeks on tour, trusting his body, trusting his game, and coming out on top in most occasions. His self-belief was continually ignited by new positive experiences as he transitioned into the ATP Challenger Tour events. Defeating Tommy Robredo (then 170 ATP) 6-4 7-6 in the Sopot Challenger 90 in Poland was one of those moments. The stars were beginning to align. Even his new tattoo was fulfilling its intended purpose.
“In the first round of the Cordenons Challenger 90 in Italy, it was hot, humid and windy. I was down a set and a break against the world number one junior Chun-hsin Tseng TPE (then 354 ATP). I was hating the conditions, hating the match up, and on the change of ends I realized I had this ugly tattoo on my leg that I needed to deal with, just like needed to deal with the ugly match that day. It reminded me that nothing is perfect, and I ended up winning 7-5 in the third and went on to win the tournament. It was my first ATP Challenger Title”.
The year of 2019 became an enjoyable marathon for Chris. Each week he became a better player, and most importantly he remained injury free. He won 86 professional matches on the tour, more than any player on the planet for the calendar year. It resulted in a career high world ranking of 119 ATP and a spot in the 2020 Australian Open main draw where he handed the world number 16 Andrey Rublev RUS a scrumptious donut in the second before unfortunately going down in a tight four setter, 3-6 6-0 4-6 6-7.
Right now, it’s all about the 1% improvements to get into the world’s top 100 and beyond. Is lifting weights and running again required to achieve those micro improvements? Possibly, it’s something Chris contemplates, but he clearly remains on an upward trajectory that is undoubtedly attributed to the unique path he carved for himself. It’s not for everyone. The same goes for the tattoo he Google’s how to remove from his leg almost every week. Why change anything just yet?