The Player

The Player - Tennis Shadow

This piece appeared in the Sunday Independent in May 2005


The Player

Sean McCarthy always had big dreams. When he was a kid he wanted to be a tennis star. Like many young players Sean fantasised about being one of the glamour boys of the international circuit, battling Agassi and Becker for Grand Slams while his entourage watched nervously in the stands. It seemed like the perfect life and there was no reason why it couldn’t happen. He had, after all, the best equipment, the best coaches and access to the best facilities in Ireland. But, while tennis is often perceived as being a country club sport, there is much more to becoming a top player than privilege and circumstance. You need talent. And Sean, though dedicated and hardworking was nothing special. ‘He was what I would have called an OK club player’ Remembers former coach Jimmy McDonagh. ‘Fairly mediocre really’.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for junior players to think they’re better than they are. Many take on the star-like mannerisms of their heroes. The Dublin leagues are full of players who have the McEnroe temper without the voodoo volleys, the Monica Seles grunt but not the buzz saw backhand. In the end, a match with a superior player is usually enough to deflate any notions of grandeur a young player might have. But Sean had a firmer grip on his fantasies than most. He was convinced that he was a burgeoning talent, a frustrated giant killer who would show them all.

Pete Lowther, a vastly experienced coach, remembers his first training session with McCarthy. In order to ascertain Sean’s level Lowther suggested a game in which they would try to keep the ball in play for as long as possible. McCarthy had to predict how many strokes the rally would last for. ‘First he said a hundred’, remembers Pete. ‘When the ball didn’t even clear the net six times I tried to diplomatically suggest that he should perhaps lower his sights’ says Lowther. ‘But Sean wasn’t having any of it; he wanted in fact to raise the target to one hundred and fifty’.

Though Sean’s coaches and competitors were more than sceptical of his blind ambition, there was one man who stood behind him every step of the way: His father Patrick McCarthy was a technician in RTE and he had grand plans for his kids. His daughter was, according to one coach, ‘pushed’ to become a ballerina and his son Sean was going to become a top tennis player. No matter what those idiots at the tennis club thought.

When McCarthy was fifteen, the entire family moved to America to start a new life. Sean was sent to train at the world famous Nick Bollettieri tennis academy in Florida. Bollettieri was the svengali-like coach who had set up an assembly line type facility to churn out a roll call of tennis greats. Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Anna Kournikova were just a few of the stars who had passed through his hands. The academy is owned by IMG, a sports management group, which every year finances scholarships for up and coming young players. The rest of the academy’s athletes are paying guests who, for up to ten thousand dollars a month, can work on their backhands and their tans. McCarthy fell into the latter category.

By the time the family returned to Ireland a few years later, Sean had a mid-Atlantic drawl, a selection of hairy anecdotes (‘he was always a great storyteller’ said one coach) and a moderately improved tennis game. ‘He had definitely come on a lot’ remembers Aled Hughes, head coach at Riverview, ‘but he was still only a middling to good player’. Now Sean would train for hours under the tutelage of Ulli Nganga a former top junior from England who had come to Ireland to coach tennis at Riverview. Alone amongst his trainers Nganga seemed convinced of McCarthy’s potential describing his charge as ‘similar to Marcelo Rios’ (former world number one from Chile). Nganga subsequently left Riverview ‘on bad terms’ but his friendship with McCarthy continued.

Though he had in fact, never even competed at local or county level in Ireland, Sean, spurred on by Nganga, decided that it was now time to embark on his proper career as an international tennis player. ‘To put this in perspective’ said one former coach, ‘it would be a bit like a weekend soccer player trying out for Manchester United’. Throughout 2000 and 2001 his name cropped up in drawsheets of obscure satellite tournaments in Europe and South Africa. There is no record of Sean winning a singles match at any of these events. He finally threw in the towel, later raging that it was ‘insufficient funding’ that had spoiled his quest for sporting greatness.

Chastened but not bowed McCarthy returned to Dublin. Toying with various ‘projects’, he called up his old friend Ciaran Duggan. The pair had known each other since they were nine years old and had been in school together at St Michael’s in Ballsbridge. While Sean had been pursuing his dreams of tennis stardom Duggan had been studying for an Arts degree in UCD. McCarthy was still in love with the glamour of top-flight tennis and wanted to organise a tournament in Dublin with all of the top players and maybe incorporate elements of fashion and music. Having failed to make it as a player, he wanted the next best thing: to become a promoter.

Duggan confesses to being a little sceptical initially. ‘I knew it was a great idea but I was a little unsure of how it would all work’ he remembers. ‘But Sean was so enthusiastic, it was infectious’. Along with Nganga they set up Proprietary management, which had as it’s head office a run down building next to a bicycle shop in Booterstown. Collins was to be the boss man. ‘It just seemed natural’ says Duggan ‘especially as he had come up with the idea’. Nganga, thirty-one at the time, would be taking orders from a man ten years his junior.

Tennis tournaments are notoriously difficult to organise. In order to get the top players the trio of McCarthy, Nganga and Duggan would have to secure the co-operation of the Women’s Tennis Association, (the governing body for the players), Tennis Ireland and, most importantly of all, the management companies who represented the players. Hoping to groom some useful contacts, Nganga and Collins travelled to South Carolina where the Family Circle Cup, one of the oldest events on the WTA Tour, is held. Collins later claimed that this was where he was reunited with Fritz Nau, his formers mentor a Bollettieri’s academy. It seemed odd that one of the most renowned coaches in America would perform mentor duties for a short term paying guest, but the story had a ring to it. And good stories were to be very important in promoting the Trilogy.
As McCarthy tells it, the three then secured an audiennce with some WTA vice presidents who gave their blessing for them to approach the players with an offer. By startling coincidence they also had a number of contacts at IMG and Octagon, two of the largest management companies. It was through these that they secured the participation of Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles. The agents professed to be amazed at the naivete of Collins. ‘If you have enough money you can set up a tennis tournament anywhere’ one tournament director told me. ‘The usual procedure would be to haggle, but these guys accepted the first offer that was put on the table’. The fees for the players were never released but the Williams sisters were rumoured to be receiving in the region of half a million Euro.

The participation of the top players in the world was crucial in securing the financial support back in Dublin. Proprietary Management was receiving substantial funding for the event from Patrick McCarthy and from Norman Hewson, father of Sean’s girlfriend Lorraine and Bono’s brother. But more importantly, the star clout of the players helped convince a whole raft of suppliers and companies that everything was above board and that they would be paid as the event, inevitably, began to make money.

The concept, everyone agreed, was nothing short of genius. Women’s tennis had hugely increased popularity in the late nineties and now at tournaments like Wimbledon and US Open the television ratings for the women’s matches outstrip those of the men. But even more significantly, the top female players had huge ‘crossover appeal’. Tennis magazine dubbed players like Hantuchova and Williams ‘the celebrity vixens’ of the WTA tour and they graced the covers of lad’s mags, took acting roles in sitcoms and attended the MTV awards. Kournikova was one of the biggest stars in the world and tried to fit in the odd tennis match around fashion shoots and dating popstar Enrique Iglesias.

When McCarthy lined up models Jodie Kidd and Sophie Dahl for the fashion show it seemed that the event’s success was assured. But already problems were beginning to emerge. If the three lads had pulled off an unlikely coup, they seemed determined to keep it to themselves.

Jimmy McDonagh, a coach at the Fitzwilliam club in Dublin, remembers receiving a strange phone call from a women in September 2002. ‘She was a true tennis fan and in fact was calling me on her way to the airport. She had tickets for a tournament in Madrid’ he told me. ‘But before she went she wanted to make sure that she didn’t miss out on the big tennis exhibition that was rumoured to be taking place in Dublin. I told her it was the first I had heard of it’. That someone as involved in Irish tennis as McDonagh would have been unaware of the event’s existence a mere two months before it was due to take place should have given anyone involved grounds for concern. The ordinary procedure would be to begin promoting the event six or seven months in advance. Belatedly a few ads were taken out in the Irish Times, but these were not enough to stem poor ticket sales. Another problem was that the tickets were priced out of the league of many ordinary fans. The kids were mad for Anna and Co. but few could afford one hundred Euro to see her.

This was not helped by the fact that McCarthy seems to have gone out of his way to alienate the tennis community in the run up to the event. He only approached Tennis Ireland at a very late stage to receive the necessary authorisation to hold the event and made no attempt to involve his old club, Riverview. ‘If he had approached us’ Aled Hughes says ‘we could have helped him to sell the place out a hundred times over. There was huge interest but they never really tapped into it fully ’. In the end, of course this strategy backfired on McCarthy and the arena at the RDS was, at times, only about two thirds full. Many of the people who did attend had received complimentary tickets.

The media were also reluctant to co-operate with McCarthy, who was proving to be a rather prickly character. ‘I would say he was fairly abrupt’ remembers one PR rep who worked with him ‘he certainly didn’t endear himself to people and he thought that the press had no right to ask about how the event was being financed’. McCarthy was personally fronting the publicity drive and was showing that his well developed imagination had not in any way diminished with the passing years. He presented himself to the world’s press as a twenty-one year old retired tennis professional named Sean Collins who had been to Bollettieri’s academy (conveniently omitting to mention that he was a paying guest at the time). The event was to be called ‘the Collins Cup’ in honour of Sean’s alleged ancestor, Michael Collins.

Bizarrely, nobody at the time questioned the veracity of McCarthy’s boasts but there were those who privately questioned whether he was really as young as he claimed. He certainly came across as being quite a bit older than that to me’ remembers Des Allen, CEO of Tennis Ireland ‘I would have said he was more like thirty one!’ Mike Finlay, a tournament organiser from South Carolina who worked closely with McCarthy during the event, expressed amazement when it was put to him that he was so young: ‘jeez are you sure about that?’ he asked me. Certainly the photographs from the time show a man who looks a good deal older than twenty-one.

But it’s possible that the stress of organising such a large event was prematurely ageing Sean. The weekend that the tournament took place was a hectic time for him and his partners. ‘We were working together up to fourteen hours a day’ remembers Duggan. ‘It was very intense’. Adding to the pressure was the fact that they had not yet secured an act for the musical stage of the Trilogy. ‘We had a couple of big names in the pipeline’ said Duggan ‘but there are a few big promoters in Ireland who control the market and they don’t like competition’. In the end, the big name act, which right up to the last moment was ‘assured’ never materialised and the Trilogy, became a rather less catchy duology.

As the tournament itself got underway, it became clear that something was terribly wrong. The hoardings around the makeshift court at the RDS were bare. Sponsorship, normally the lifeblood of any tournament, had clearly not been secured and the players would compete, possibly for the only time in their careers, on courts that carried no logos or advertising of any kind. In addition, it emerged that RTE would not be covering the event so local companies would anyway have had little incentive to fork out top dollar for courtside space. ‘As soon as I saw the courts, I knew there was going to be problems’ said Finlay. ‘I tried to warn Sean on several occasions that he needed to bring in people with more experience, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He was in over his head.’

Sean was determined that the players and models would be treated like queens while they were in Dublin. He personally escorted several of the players to Dublin nightspots like Café en Seine and was seen drinking in the bar of the Four Seasons hotel into the early hours with Jodie Kidd. Even with costs spiralling dangerously out of control, no expense was spared in making sure they had a good time. Mick Devine who provided the chauffeur service for all the players remembers McCarthy ‘demanding’ that the players be provided with cars twenty four hours a day. ‘I pointed out to him that it would be normal, even at big tournaments that the players would have a shuttle service but this guy wanted cars for the hairstylists and makeup artists and everyone’.

The fashion show too was beset by problems. Like the tennis tournament it was well attended but it later emerged that many people had received complimentary tickets. The proceeds from the show along with a percentage of Anna Kournikova’s fee for the tennis were supposed to go to The Chernobyl Children’s charity but according to spokesman Emmet Coffey they never received anything. Attendees were invited to place donations in envelopes that were left on their seats, which were later collected by Proprietary management employees. Nobody knows what happened to this money. Collins presented Adi Roche with a giant cheque from the event. Of course it bounced.

A creeping sense of panic was beginning to overtake those working for the event. Alan Gannon of Frontline Security, who provided bodyguards for the players, remembers suspecting that McCarthy’s company was haemorrhaging money. ‘But we couldn’t bail on him, we had agreed to provide the security and we had a moral obligation to protect the players’. The players themselves were also becoming more dubious. Devine remembers shuttling an irate Anna Kournikova to Dublin airport. ‘She was talking in perfect English on her mobile phone. She said she wasn’t going any further until she was satisfied that the money was being transferred into her account. We had to stop off in a café in Drumcondra while she spoke to her agent’. McCarthy meanwhile was keeping cool. ‘If we break even then the event will have been a success’ he told one reporter. ‘And if we lose a little, then that’s ok too’.

As it turned out of course, everyone’s fears were more than justified. Kournikova’s fee was but a drop in the ocean of Proprietary Management’s unpaid debts of just over 3.6 million Euro. They owed IMG some 976,000 Euro. Between them, the fathers of McCarthy and Duggan lost over 400,000 Euro. But it was the companies that became involved with the event that were hit hardest. Alan Gannon was unable to pay his workers for one week. ‘We’re a strong and successful business, so we were able to absorb the loss after a while’ he says ‘but I know of a number of companies who very nearly went to the wall’. Amazingly, even if the players had come to Dublin for free, the event still would not have made money.
Gannon doesn’t mince his words when he talks of his dealings with McCarthy.’ He was quite simply the biggest fucking crook I have ever met in my life’ he says. ‘He swindled us all’ Mick Devine recalls ‘the sheer embarrassment of being in Dublin airport and people recognising me and knowing I’d been taken for a fool by that chancer. I had to stand in the bank for two hours before they cashed his first cheque. The rest of them bounced’

McCarthy claims that even after the event he was not aware that he would be unable to pay the creditors. In late December 2002 he gave a self-congratulatory interview to the Sunday Independent, in which he said that he planned to organise more events in 2003. Just as when he was playing on the tennis tour, McCarthy refused to read the writing on the wall.
At a creditors meeting in January 2003 Gannon was incensed to see Sean ‘arriving with a smirk on his face and leaving laughing at us.’ Proprietary management had assets of only 5,000 Euro. To this day nobody has been paid. The Company’s registrar has given the liquidator leave to file for a reckless directorship action against McCarthy.

Today the three men don’t see each other any more. ‘The publicity drove us apart’ says Duggan. Nganga has returned to England to resume his career as a tennis coach at Foxhills tennis centre in Surrey. Duggan is doing a master’s course in, wait for it, event management. And as for Sean Collins-McCarthy? He has, by all accounts, been taking a protracted break from all work since the liquidation began. But he has been spotted enjoying cocktails in Cocoon bar in Dublin (ironically, one of the company’s unpaid creditors) eyewitnesses claim he is living the life of a playboy in sunny Porta Banus. (‘He’s got some neck’ says Devine). He tried to involve the others in another project in 2003 but Duggan, for one, had learned his lesson.
But though he is a wanted man, there are those who still have a sneaking admiration for Sean McCarthy. He had, after all, succeeded against the odds in bringing a world class field to Dublin and in organising an event that, if managed correctly, would have been a boon for tennis in Ireland. Aled Hughes laments ‘it was a brilliant idea, but he just bit off more than he could chew’. Everyone who attended the event agreed McCarthy, though foolhardy and deluded, had put on a great show. My friends and I paid hundreds of Euro to see our tennis idols up close and personal. And it was worth every penny.

As the American poet Delmore Schwartz once wrote ‘in dreams begin responsibilities’. McCarthy was always a dreamer and he could not accept it when his plans fell apart. At every stage in his life, he rejected banal reality in favour of a glamorous fantasy existence. When finally he entered the business world his groundless optimism and overactive imagination were always going to be dangerous liabilities. He built it and they came, but when things started to go wrong he buried his head in the sand and, just as when he was a tennis player, refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. He was a great promoter, he really was. If only those idiots could have seen it.

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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