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Meet the Kerry woman rubbing shoulders with Serena and Nadal

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Molly Sullivan chats to Adam Moynihan about life as a strength and conditioning coach to professional tennis player İpek Öz

Molly Sullivan always wanted to work in professional sports but she never imagined it would happen like this. Despite playing a bit of tennis as a kid, the Ballyhar native admits to only having a passing interest in the sport. Up until recently, that is.

In April she came on board as strength and conditioning coach for up and coming Turkish player İpek Öz. The last few months have been a whirlwind of international travel, Grand Slams, and mixing with some of the greatest tennis players of all time.

It’s all bit surreal, Sullivan admits, although when you speak to her it doesn’t take long to figure out how she has ended up where she is. During our walk around Killarney House and Gardens on a sunny Tuesday morning, the 24-year-old comes across as clear-minded and driven; the type of person for whom mediocrity isn’t an option.

Initially she wanted to be a sports agent so she studied Law and Psychology in UL, but the draw of a more hands-on role was strong.

“It was a crossroads, left or right, and I couldn’t really decide for a very long time,” she recalls. “In the end I went and did a Masters in Sports Performance in UL. I finished that a year-and-a-half ago. Now I’m doing a Masters of Science in Sports Nutrition, which I’ll be finishing in November.”

Upon graduating from her first Masters, she quickly picked up an S&C gig with the Irish swim team. She enjoyed the role (despite dealing with the effects of the pandemic during her time there) but she ultimately came to the conclusion that it wasn’t for her.

“My boss there referred me another S&C coach, Ian Jones, who has worked in the NFL with the Houston Texans. That was my thing when I was studying, I wanted to go and work in the NFL. When Ian offered me a job, I was delighted. I took it because of the amount of connections Ian has and the amount of people he knows.”

A short time after linking up with Jones, her foresight paid off - albeit it in an unexpected manner.

“I was working with Ian for less than three months when he sent me a voice note saying that there was an American tennis coach looking for a strength and conditioning coach, and would I have any interest in travelling out there and trialling it for a few weeks.”

The athlete in need turned out to be the No. 1 female tennis player in Turkey, İpek Öz.

Sullivan, an accomplished rower who earlier this year won a national title in the women’s quad with Killorglin RC, jumped at the opportunity. Although she readily confesses to not being a big tennis fan up to that point.

“I actually wasn’t to be honest with you,” she smiles. “I used to play it when I was a kid but I would only watch the majors. I was never a hardcore tennis fan. But I just always wanted to work in professional sport. That was the goal. So it was a no-brainer to take the job.”

In addition to taking care of Öz’s physical training, Sullivan also manages the nutrition side of things. She says she has been taken aback by the sheer volume of work pro tennis players get through on a daily basis.

“It’s so different to any sport I’ve worked in. It’s insane the amount they have to go through. There’s a documentary on Netflix worth watching called Untold: Breaking Point. It shows how mentally draining it is.

“It’s all about showing up and doing the exact same thing for hours, and then doing the gym for an hour. And then repeating that the next day. In terms of workload, it’s very high.

“İpek gets up in the morning and hits [balls] for two or two-and-a-half hours on the court. It’s every other day basically for me; one day will be a weights session and the next day will be a conditioning session. So she’s training for about four hours every day, at least.

“Injury risk is always a problem, and you have to think about nutrition constantly. As a player you really have to love what you’re doing or else it just won’t work.”

By chance, Sullivan’s appointment has coincided nicely with the most exciting time in the pro tennis calendar. Since linking up with her new employer for the first time in Sweden (where Öz won a €25,000 tournament), the Kerry woman has been at Wimbledon, Roland Garros and, most recently, the US Open.

She helped Öz through a two-week training camp in Istanbul before flying out to the latter tournament, which is still ongoing. The Turkish player, who is currently ranked 165th in the world, exited in the qualifiers at the hands of Leolia Jeanjean of France last Wednesday.

İpek Öz and Sullivan at the US Open.

It was nevertheless an incredible experience for Sullivan, not least because of the famous faces she bumped into while working at the iconic Flushing Meadows venue.

“The US Open was cool because all the main draw players arrive early. While we were there I watched Rafa Nadal practice every day. You meet them all in the corridor every day. I was just star-struck all the time.

“I’ve met Nadal a good few times actually. He came very early [to the US Open]. I just decided to go to Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is open to anyone with accreditation, and he was in there practicing. He took a photo with me afterwards. The following morning I saw him in the hallway and he said ‘good morning’. He’s just really sound and makes time for everyone. That’s the impression I got from him.”

Nadal is playing at Flushing Meadows for the 20th time.

This particular US Open is very special indeed for one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Serena Williams. The 40-year-old is expected to call it a day once her involvement in this year’s tournament is over; she is in third round action today (Friday) against Ajla Tomljanović. Sullivan is growing accustomed to being around the likes of Nadal and Andy Murray and Naomi Osaka, but she admits to being especially starstruck around the 23-time Grand Slam champ.

“I remember one day I was talking to İpek and I said, ‘Jeez, I’d love to meet Serena Williams’. And 10 seconds later, I swear, she was there warming up next to us. I turned around and was like, ‘I can’t be here right now’.

“I don’t like bothering players when they’re doing something so I actually caught her for a picture after her practice two days later. She was sound. Very nice about it.”

Serena Williams and Molly Sullivan.

What do her family back in Ballyhar, a rural townland near Killarney, make of it all?

“They think I have notions now I’d say,” Sullivan jokes. “They think it’s unreal though. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had it planned when I was studying that I wasn’t going to end up anywhere else besides professional sport. Thankfully it has paid off now.”

Next up is a busy period that includes trips to Bucharest, Budapest and Parma. Sullivan says Öz is making good progress as she comes to terms with elite level tennis.

"She’s doing okay. She’s dealing with a lot of other things on the side that is affecting her mentally (Öz recently split with her coach). Other than that she’s going well. It’s her first year in Grand Slam tournaments so it’s a huge difference for her. You’re walking into the US Open and there are thousands of people there asking for pictures and autographs. And hers was a night match so everyone was drinking… It’s just a different kettle of fish altogether.

“She’s aiming to get into the top 100, and then the top 50. It’s all leading up to January, really, and the Australian Open in Melbourne. The big goal for İpek will be to win a few matches at a major.

“It’s exciting. The Australian Open is supposed to be the nicest of all of them for the athletes and coaches. The facilities are meant to be insane. You’re treated like royalty at the Grand Slams. It’s really nice to be a part of it.”

As for her future beyond that, Sullivan’s ambitions remain sky high, although she does feel as though being a woman is an “obstacle” in her chosen field. She was fortunate that Öz “really wanted” a female S&C coach, but job-hunting in male sports may prove to be more challenging.

“It’s not easy getting a job in professional sports as a female strength and conditioning coach. It’s just not that common yet. I was the only one at the US Open from what we could see. The females there were sports psychologists, nutritionists, or you’d see the odd physio. The majority of the teams were all male. I was constantly getting asked when I was playing because everyone thought I was a tennis player.

“Being a girl is still an obstacle, for sure. Especially working with men’s teams. That’s why I did my second masters; I wanted to have everything covered from an employer’s point of view.

“I’d like to help İpek get as high as she can in the rankings and go on that journey with her a bit. I’ll just see how that goes really and then, like I said, I always wanted to work in the NFL. I had planned to do that this summer on an internship but when I got offered this job, it took precedence.

“We’ll just have to see where it goes.”

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Survey reveals Kerry fans’ expectations for 2023

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A start-of-season survey carried out by the Killarney Advertiser has revealed Kerry supporters’ expectations ahead of the 2023 campaign, which gets underway on Sunday with a league match against Donegal.

Kerry enjoyed a perfect year in 2022 as Jack O’Connor led his team to glory in the National League, Munster Championship and All-Ireland Championship. It would be an incredible achievement to replicate that success again this time around, but some supporters seem to think that it can be done.

Around 73% of those polled believe that Kerry will reach another All-Ireland final, with the majority (42%) predicting that Sam Maguire will be staying in the Kingdom for another year at least. Just under a quarter of respondents (23%) think that Kerry will fall at the semi-final stage, however, with the remainder (4%) anticipating a quarter-final or round robin exit.

1. How far will Kerry go in the championship?

All-Ireland round robin – 1%

All-Ireland quarter-final – 3%

All-Ireland semi-final – 23%

All-Ireland final (runners-up) – 31%

All-Ireland final (winners) – 42%

That’s what supporters expect to happen, but what would they be happy with? When asked what would constitute a “good year” for Kerry in 2023, 54% stated that only an All-Ireland will do. A further 32% said they would be content with another All-Ireland final appearance. So, effectively, the vast majority of Kerry supporters (86%) won’t be happy unless their team at least makes it to the All-Ireland final on July 30.

2. Kerry need to ___________ for 2023 to be classed as a “good” year.

Reach the All-Ireland round robin stage – 1%

Reach the All-Ireland quarter-final – 3%

Reach the All-Ireland semi-final – 10%

Reach the All-Ireland final – 32%

Win the All-Ireland final – 54%

Neighbours Cork gave Kerry a real hiding in the McGrath Cup at the beginning of this month but it appears as though fans from this side of the county bounds are placing little stock in that particular result. Over 96% of supporters expect Kerry to win their provincial championship. A very small minority (3%) are fearing the worst, i.e. Cork winning Munster.

3. Who will win the Munster Championship?

Kerry – 96%

Cork – 3%

Someone else – 1%

Expectations are lower for the immediate future, however. With several players out injured and others – including star player David Clifford – being rested, most fans reckon Kerry will finish mid-table in Division 1 of the National League. Over half of the readers who responded to our survey (52%) think Kerry will finish 3rd or 4th in the eight-team pool, with roughly one-in-five expecting a 5th or 6th place finish.

Despite the lengthy list of absentees, 21% of supporters are still optimistic that Kerry can retain their Division 1 title. At the other end of the scale, around 1% think Kerry will be relegated.

4. Where will Kerry finish in Division 1 of the National League?

1st or 2nd (winners) – 21%

1st or 2nd (runners-up) – 8%

3rd or 4th – 52%

5th or 6th – 18%

7th or 8th (relegated) – 1%

When asked which opponent they are most wary of heading into the new season, the vast majority of Kerry fans singled out the same Division 2 team.

5. Which opposition team should Kerry be most worried about in 2023?

Dublin – 78%

Tyrone – 7%

Armagh – 6%

Cork – 3%

Derry – 3%

Mayo – 2%

Galway – 1%

Jack O’Connor’s side travel to Ballybofey on Sunday for their first competitive outing of the season. Throw-in is at 2pm with the match being televised live on TG4.

Follow @AdamMoynihan for all the latest Kerry GAA news

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“Argentina have Messi but we have the Messiah”

By Michelle Crean  Calls for full civic reception for David Clifford Superstar footballer David Clifford has been compared to Argentina’s Messi. At Monday’s full Kerry County Council meeting councillors were full of […]

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By Michelle Crean 

Calls for full civic reception for David Clifford

Superstar footballer David Clifford has been compared to Argentina’s Messi.

At Monday’s full Kerry County Council meeting councillors were full of praise for both the Fossa and Rathmore teams who won their respective finals a day earlier in Croke Park. Fossa became the All-Ireland Junior Football Champions when they beat Stewartstown Harps, while Rathmore secured the AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Club Football title.

Cllr Mike Kennelly said “we are currently witnessing the greatest footballer ever” as he called for a full civic reception to honour David Clifford.

“I think he’s the greatest inspiration to every Kerry person. We, as an authority, as a county need to acknowledge this. We need to acknowledge David’s greatness and inspiration on his unrivalled success over the last 12 months. Argentina has Messi but we have the Messiah and we’ve got to protect him and honour that. Most people will agree with us that he is the greatest we have ever seen.”

However, cautiously Cllr Cahill added that it’s better to hold a civic reception for both teams rather than single out one player.

“I’m not too sure about singling out David. Maybe talk to the family on that. Paudie got an All Star this year and last year and was Man of the Match at several games. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it but tease it out a little bit further.”

The matter was referred to the CPG.

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