ON Friday mornings he drags himself out of bed sometime after 7am but although he has three young children to help ready for school, he has his own class to prepare for.
His four kids – the youngest, Grace, is just three – are still sound asleep when dad is heading out the door at 7.30am. Alex (10), Isobel (8) and Eve (6) might be excited at the prospect of being finished for the weekend after today but if they are short of enthusiam for another day in the classroom, then their father can sympathise. Before his working day begins at 9.15am, the early morning will be spent in the company of his pilates instructor, Kishan Mistri, a South African who moved here in 2008 and now works with Naas Physiotherapy Clinic. Sympathy and empathy are in short supply during his classes but Kishan never lacks enthusiasm. If you have an injury, he’ll find a way to work around it.
Donnelly is dreading the next hour but knows he is in good hands. The pay-off for this 60 minutes of stress in the studio is that, by the time he’s finished, he’ll feel far younger than his 42 years.
The proof is in his appearance. Granted nature has been kind – his jet black hair shows no signs of fading or falling – but at 6’1 and 189lbs, he is lean and lithe. You can see it in the arms and shoulders, which are slim and yet strong-looking at the same time. It’s an unusual physique but not just because most men his age are starting to sag and slouch. There are few men in the country as possessed about tennis as Donnelly. This morning he’ll push himself to the limit at pilates just so he can minimise the damage to his body when he plays and practices on court. Often his sister, Elaine, a physical therapist, will spend 90 minutes massaging away the lactic acid that results from a three-hour match. Massage is too kind a word for it though – Elaine often has her foot propped against the wall to support herself as her arms and elbows dig deep into severely strained muscles.
“Boy does she hurt,” says her brother. “That’s when I say, ‘fuck this. No more’. I’ll just have baths and relax.”
As much as the pain is excruciating, it would be worse if Donnelly couldn’t play.
“My wife would always say I’m a bit mad because I go flat to the mat for two and a half hours. I love it, I get a buzz out of it.”
That’s why Donnelly practices against two players, rather than one. That way he’s working twice as hard – double the buzz.
“My wife thinks I have something missing, a screw loose. I love the fitness side of tennis. It’s a bug when you get that fit, you’re enjoying it but to play at that level you have to be fit so it’s a double-edged sword, you keep both of them going,” he says explaining what it takes to be like him – an international veterans player with the Irish over-40s.
“The other night we were playing the semi-finals of the league for Naas against Castleknock. I drew an English guy called Ed Seator, he was top 400 in the world at one stage. He’s 26 now – two years ago he was a touring pro. I’m feckin 42. In the first set he beat me 6-1. He broke me early and he was 3-0 up and I hit a ball that was going way out and he tried to drive-volley this ball but he missed it by miles. I thought it was showman stuff. Then he did something similar again. I was nearly tempted to walk off the court and leave this fella here but then I got stuck in. I had him throwing the racket around. The lads were telling me beforehand that he smokes so I threw in a few marathon, 20-shot rallies. At one stage I had a chance to put a ball away and I let him get to it. You want to see him, he was buckling at the end of it.”
It wasn’t enough to turn the game around but Donnelly still gained something by losing the second set 6-4.
“I was sitting there in the middle of that going, ‘what the hell am I doing?’”
The answer is obvious when you he tells you about his experience of Gaelforce West.
To the uninitiated, the event is like a version of hell on earth, re-imagined in a remote part of Co Mayo. There’s a 13km run for starters, the route taking you through muddied fields that swallow half your legs. One minute you’re trudging through soft ground, the next you’re jumping over walls and steering a kayak 1km across Killary Harbour. Out of the kayak and back on foot through the bog, it takes another 3.5km before you reach the first cycle and while there might be a chance for a little breather with the wheels beneath you, mentally it gets even more exhausting.
Donnelly witnessed one poor soul ram a wall and flip her handlebars before landing on a rock. Many more were crying and puking if they hadn’t already been carted away in an ambulance. The cycle lasts 33.5km but you’re not cycling for all of it. At some parts the surface is so bad you have to carry the bike, especially if you’ve opted to use a racer rather than a hybrid, which is better on uneven terrain. But a hybrid is no good for speed on the open road. While this is an endurance event, it’s also a race. For Donnelly, it’s about more than sheer survival so naturally he was pedalling a racer.
By the end of the cycle he was beyond halfway but he still had to scale a mountain. The elite athletes go up and down Croagh Patrick (a 4.5km hike in total) in 40 minutes – descending in 10 – but by the time Donnelly was coming down from the top, running wasn’t an option because of cramp. When he was finished, and there was another 12km to cycle before the end, it had taken him six hours. The average time is six and a half hours.
“It was great craic,” he says. “I’d love to do it again and do six months proper training because it is definitely addictive.”
With his tennis commitments, in Naas and with Ireland, he really only had a solid month to prepare for Gaelforce. He had only cycled twice beforehand. With his wife Ed and their four children accompanying him in Westport for the weekend, it was no easy task getting out of bed the following morning. And yet a day later he was looking at the course, thinking of ways he could go faster.
He didn’t walk off the court that night against Ed Seator because Donnelly is built like a Sat-Nav – forever trying to find the best route.
This current journey started 10 years ago. Before then he was a badminton player first and foremost, his weeknights spent travelling around Dublin playing in halls across the city. It was the highest level of badminton available and Donnelly played relentlessly during the winter.
Summer was for tennis. Reared on Fishery Lane, he spent most of his school holidays at Naas Lawn Tennis Club. It was there that he became friends with Simon Sparrow, who’s now the club chairman. Donnelly’s children and Sparrow’s children now play together in the club, growing up with tennis just like their fathers.
That’s what both men cherish about the club and the game.
“It’s a sport you start when you’re a kid and it’ll stay with you for life,” says Sparrow. “I’ve got a tremendous amount of goodness out of the club. My family joined it when I was six, I’m 43 now.”
Just like his lifelong friend, Sparrow’s spare time revolves around the tennis club. His wife, Olivia, plays on the ladies first team while his Saturday is spent ferrying his two daughters to practice – Anna (6) has a 90-minute session at 9am and Lynn (10) has two hours of tennis in the afternoon. In fact, Sparrow met his wife in the club. Ed (Edwina) Donnelly, Alan’s better half, had to join the tennis club after she married him.
“Years ago she said to me she may take up tennis or she’d never see me at all!” says Donnelly.
It wasn’t always so. Until the age of 30, if he wasn’t in work, he was probably playing badminton somewhere.
“I came off the badminton court one night and I put the rackets down – we actually won a tournament – I walked off and never hit a shuttle since. A guy I’d normally murder was giving me a hard time because I hadn’t been playing much. I couldn’t handle coming back down.”
Having started out at the age of 6, Donnelly was a long time playing premier – the highest level in Ireland – by the time he realised he wasn’t getting any better. Having scaled the mountain, he didn’t fancy stopping for a game on the way back down. He turned his focus to tennis instead.
It wasn’t foreign to him either. When he was younger, tennis was his summer sport, the perfect foil for badminton.
“I was 31 and I said, ‘feck it, I’d have a go at this.’ The vets (veterans – over-35s) is a big thing in tennis. So I started playing the national individual and the doubles.”
By having a go, Donnelly means he was trying to make the Irish team. When his international ambition wasn’t realised despite good results, he was about to pack it in when he finally got a call-up to go to the world championships in 2010. Given the fact you have to dip into your own pocket and travel to Mexico, his wife had mixed emotions when he told her the news.
“I said, ‘bad news’.
She said, ‘awww’, smiling.
Then I said, ‘I’m only messing.’
“But at the same time she gave me a big hug and a clap on the back.”
With four children under the age of 10, Alan’s absence for 10 days to play tennis in South America involved a major sacrifice for both of them. Donnelly runs his own business, D & R Auto (an auto-electric firm), so as well as having to pay for his flights and accommodation, he’d be out of pocket just by being away. Never mind the fact that to prepare himself to play on a world stage would involve a lot of time on a tennis court before he left. Yet the pay-off was obvious as soon as he landed in Mexico.
“Everything is done to a tee. You have your badge, you’re picked up by the best of coaches. They have an opening ceremony, the ITF president would be there to open it. We were treated like royalty over there. It was like living like a pro.”
Every morning they’d be court at either 8am or 9am to spend an hour warming up for the day’s game. Although surrounded by luxury and basking in fine weather, this is no holiday, especially when you’re gasping for air playing against a man who has beaten Pete Sampras and Boris Becker during his career.
“The first match I played in Mexico, the altitude was ridiculous. The ball just never came down, the thin air – it’s just so hard to keep the ball in. You’re trying to breathe – Mexico City is 2,000 feet above sea level. The first guy we played was a French guy, Rodolphe Gilbert. He was no 42 in the world at one stage.”
They lost that game 6-2, 6-2 but they were delighted to have won four games. When you’re an amateur Irish tennis player up against seasoned pros in an alien climate, your version of success is not as simple as winning and losing. Irish teams come to these tournaments aiming to win one of their three group games. That means they’ll at least finish third in their group, which means they’ll play against all the other third-placed teams in the next stage. Every position is eventually decided, from 1 to 32, in a series of play-offs and by winning a group game, Ireland ensure that they can’t finish last. Last year, at Donnelly’s second world championships in San Diego, the team finished 14th having beaten Turkey in the group stages.
This year Turkey hosts the world championships in March and Donnelly is as keen as ever. With the 2013 tournament on clay, his Saturdays before and after Christmas have been spent at DCU’s tennis academy to acclimatise to the slower surface. On Friday mornings before work, it’s still dark when he’s getting out of the bed to get ready for his Reformers class – an advanced and extremely painful form of Pilates.
“Driving in on Friday morning you’d be saying, ‘Ah Jaysus Christ.’ After the first time I did it when I went to laugh my stomach was in bits. A lot of it is your hanging backwards off the table and doing sit ups. You feel great immediately afterwards. Once you have a shower, you’d be mad to go until you get home that night.”
Given the demands tennis makes of his body, the benefits of his rigorous routine have far outweighed the costs of enduring it.
“I started Pilates about a year and a half ago and three weeks ago I went to Kishan (instructor) with a calf strain and that’s the first thing, bar repetitive injuries, that I’ve gone to him about. Before that I would have torn something every three or four months.”
While he controls his physical preparation and has a Rocky-style corner for himself in his garage at home where he skips and works a heavy bag, he’s dependent on the next generation of Naas tennis players to hone his skills for the game. Luckily the club have a really bright prospect in the shape of 13-year-old Eimear Maher. Donnelly helps to coach her but her talent is such that more often than not she’s coaching Donnelly.
“When Alan plays with Eimear, Alan’s tired,” says Simon Sparrow, the club chairman. That’s just the way Donnelly likes it though.
“My wife would always say I’m a bit mad because I go flat to the mat for two and a half hours. I love it. I get a buzz out of it.”
It’s a high he’s never tired of chasing.