It was the text Conor Niland had been waiting for. His 2011 US Open Round 1 opponent had been revealed, Novak Djokovic. Whilst others would shudder at the thought of such an encounter, Niland relished at the opportunity to learn from the world number one. “I was delighted” says the man who was the highest ranked Irish Tennis Player during his seven year professional career. The delight however, was short lived, as a mere two days later Niland was struck down with food poisoning. He sighs, “It was just back luck”.
“There were four of us at dinner, and I was the only one who got sick” he says recounting the now infamous food poisoning saga. Surely there were moments of self pity? “Yes, loads, before, during and after. It was unbelievable. I felt like for god sake for all days for this to have to happen”.
Niland knew the platform Arthur Ashe stadium, US Open 2011, afforded him. “If it was a regular tour event I wouldn’t have played, but I needed it” he says poignantly, aware that had he chosen not to play, he’d have never officially played in the main draw of the US Open, despite qualifying. At 0-6, 1-5, Niland’s body began to fail, he retired the match, “I knew I wasn’t doing myself justice. I felt terrible.”
Niland was destined to play tennis. The youngest of four, his parents moved to Birmingham before his birth. They lived across the road from a tennis court, where his sister Gina began to play. When the family relocated to Limerick, his dad built a tennis court at their house to enable Gina to progress, and so Conor played too. “So that’s how it all started, a tennis court in Birmingham before I was born” he says.
Niland claimed the Israeli Open title and the ATP Salzburg Indoors title in 2010, which were largely unreported. These wins however, lifted Niland to his highest world ranking, 129. With such a ranking, surely he deserved a wild card into Wimbledon 2011? It didn’t happen. “I was expecting them to give me one” he says, but admits “it worked out perfectly that I got in myself”.
“I do take pride in the fact that Ireland got interested in tennis for at least a week or two” he says of his career highlight, Wimbledon 2011. The saddening reality in Ireland is that sports coverage favours other sports, and tennis is but a mere sub-headline in a news bulletin if an Irish player progresses to a Grand Slam. “It would be great to see more tennis on TV. I felt I was always playing good tennis in quite obscure places unlike the GAA or rugby players who are always able to showcase what they can do every Saturday in their home town” says Conor, in a rather disenchanted tone.
Wimbledon was the stage on which he ached to showcase his talent; saying “Wimbledon is really what people in Ireland take notice of. People will always have a context for my tennis career. ‘Oh, you played in Wimbledon - then you must have been a legitimate professional’”. His first round match in Wimbledon against Frenchman Adrian Mannanon was a gripping match. The pair had met previously in 2006. In the deciding fifth set, Niland had a 4-1 lead but then began his demise. “I made a lot of silly errors. I should have won it in the end”. Niland lost the final set and match 6-4. Mannanon proceeded to face Federer in centre court. Referring to this loss, Niland says “That’s tennis, you lose loads of close tennis matches as a tennis player, so you have to shrug off loses”. And that he did, Niland qualified to the 2011 US Open shortly afterwards.
Niland also trained with the reining US Open champion, Andy Murray, several times in 2010. “It’s great to play with someone that highly ranked” Niland said of the experience. Murray respected Niland. When Murray heard that Niland was suffering from food poisoning at the US Open, he sent his physiologist to Niland’s hotel to rehydrate him before his match. The personable side of tennis, a side widely unreported.
On his journey home, from a harrowing defeat in the qualifying stages of the 2010 Australian Open, Niland read the Andre Agassi autobiography. He could empathise with Agassi, “It’s definitely not a natural way to live.” Whilst Agassi hated tennis, Niland best describes it as “a game when you’re a kid, but then it becomes your job. It takes over your life. It’s about keeping the balance and not resenting it”. On returning home, Niland turned to a sports psychologist for help. He proceeded to have the best two years of his career; this was by no means a coincidence.
Sadly, after these two awe-inspiring years of tennis, Conor Niland announced his retirement from professional tennis in April 2012; “It was a decision my body made for me really. It was my hips; they were bothering me for about a year”. Conor has since made the transition from player to coach and is currently coaching full time at the national academy in DCU. In the past month, Conor has undergone surgery on his hips, and says he’s “feeling good now”. He aims to finish all the required coaching courses, and when his hips clear up, he hopes to “get back into tennis a bit more from a playing stand point”.
“When I finished, I thought I’d never do anything as well as I did being a tennis player”, he says but it seems like Conor Niland will continue to shape the future of Irish tennis by successfully coaching our nation’s future tennis professionals, after all, as he himself says “it’s my element, the tennis court”.
The Forgotten Irish Graduate, 26th March 2013
A recent interview I conducted with Conor Niland, at The Westin Hotel, Dublin