First year actuarial mathematics student and DCU Tennis player Seán McCullagh recently represented Ireland at the World University Championships in France.
Ireland finished fourth at the tournament, beating China, before losing to eventual champions USA in the semi-final and then Germany in the battle for the final space on the podium.
Clontarf native McCullagh was a late call up to the squad, coming out on top of a four player play-off tournament to secure his place in the squad, after a member of the original squad had dropped out.
“I never had the honour of representing my country (at junior level) so when I made the Irish team for the World University Championships I was over the moon.
“I was slightly fortunate as I originally was not picked but due to a late withdrawal, four guys, including myself, were given a chance to take that vacant spot on the team,” McCullagh told The College View.
“To decide who would take that spot, there was a playoff consisting of two semi-finals and a final.
“I was the youngest of the four and had never beaten any of them so I knew it was going to be very tough.
“However, I managed to play some of my best tennis to come through two tight encounters, even saving two match points in the semi-final,” McCullagh explained.
The 19-year-old flew to France three days later, soon after completing an exam on the morning of the team’s flight to Lyon.
“Those matches were played just three days before the team left for France so it was a quick turnaround to get myself ready to leave.
“I had an exam the morning of the flight so it was straight to the airport after that to meet up with the team.
“We flew to Lyon and then took the train to Grenoble where the event was held,” McCullagh said.
There were eight nations represented at the championships, with all teams consisting of six players, three male and three female.
The Irish team was made up of McCullagh, Dan O’Neill, Dan Moloney, Julie Byrne, Amy Bowtell and Sinead Lohan.
The quarter-final draw saw Ireland, who were unseeded, avoiding the two favourites, and eventual finalists, the USA and Great Britain.
Ireland were instead drawn against China, with two men’s singles, two women’s singles, a men’s doubles, a women’s doubles and a mixed doubles match seeing each tie decided from a best of seven matches.
“We were unseeded meaning we could be drawn against the two favourites in the quarters, USA and Great Britain.
“Thankfully we avoided them and got China, who were probably the weakest of the four seeded teams. We were quietly confident, although we knew it was still a big ask,” McCullagh said.
While McCullagh lost his singles match, 7-5 6-3 to an ATP ranked player five years his senior, Ireland won the tie 4-3 overall to progress to the semi-final for the first time.
“In the tie against China, we came out on top in both women’s singles but lost both men’s singles.
“I played second singles and, although I lost, I felt I did myself proud losing 7-5 6-3 to a guy who was five years older than me and had an ATP ranking,” McCullagh explained.
“It was a similar story in the doubles with the women’s doubles coming out on top and the men’s losing meaning it was down to a deciding mixed doubles.
“In the mixed we were comfortable from start to finish meaning we won the tie 4-3 and reached the semi final for the very first time,” McCullagh said.
Ireland were hoping to finish in the top three, and come home with a medal, but were drawn against favourites, and eventual champions, USA.
USA, who have this competition eight times in the last ten years, beat Ireland 6-1 with the mixed doubles team of Dan Moloney and Julie Byrne claiming Ireland’s point
“In the end we were well beaten 6-1, with the mixed doubles collecting our only point.
“I felt that slightly flattered the USA as all four singles were close encounters with two of them going to a third set.”
Ireland faced Germany next in the bronze medal match but lost out, finishing fourth overall, with McCullagh facing
“It proved to be a step too far and we were simply outplayed. In singles I played a guy ranked 470 in the world which was a big step up for me.
“I lost 6-1 6-2 but it was a great experience playing a guy of that standard. We did get a consolation win in the men’s doubles which was a nice way to finish.”
The teenager expressed his pride at having had the chance to represent his country, and thanked coaches Garry Cahill and Jamie Pilkington for the opportunity.
“Overall, it was an incredible few days. I think this experience will help me get better as a player as it is the highest level of competition I have experienced.
“It was an incredible feeling to represent my country and filled me with great pride.
“Thanks very much to the coaches, Garry Cahill and Jamie Pilkington, for giving me that opportunity and thanks to my teammates who gave me great support during my matches.
“Hopefully I can make the team again next year and do even better,” McCullagh said.
McCullagh has represented DCU already this year, in October’s National College Championships in Rathgar.
McCullagh was knocked out in the quarter-final stage by his international teammate and eventual champion, Daniel Moloney.
“I lost in the quarter final in singles to the eventual winner Daniel Moloney of UCC, who was also a member of the Irish University team.
“I also made the semi-final in doubles. Going forward, the Intervarsities are in February in Glasnevin Tennis Club just across the road from the DCU campus.
“DCU have not won it in a few years so it would be nice to get over the line this time around,” McCullagh said.
Image Credit: Etienne Jeanneret