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Interview | Conor Niland
Ireland's highest-ever ranked player on his major successes, injury lows and life beyond the court
By Stephen Higgins | 2 September 2016
This week five years ago, Conor Niland reached the peak of his career.
Having qualified for Wimbledon for the very first time that summer, the Irish no.1 repeated the trick in New York at the final major of 2011, the US Open.
The Limerick man recovered from a dropped first set against Matwe Middelkoop in Q3 to take the match 2-6 6-1 6-4 and book an audience with world no.1 Novak Djokovic.
“I was really excited to just test myself against Djokovic. I always felt like my groundstrokes were a really high level. My serve wasn’t really and my variety and stuff wasn’t amazing, but I was really looking forward to getting the chance to just be out there and go toe-to-toe with Djokovic at least within the point."
Niland did his best to trouble Djokovic but the Serb's superior ranking and ability were not the only obstacles stacked against the Irishman.
Enter the pork salad.
"The US Open was a ridiculous situation" the now Davis Cup captain recalls to me when we meet, coincidentally, for food. "I look back on that week really fondly even though what happened was a bit weird."
What happened was food poisoning. On the eve of the biggest match of his career against the world's best on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Niland was sadly undone by a rogue meal.
"Yeah it was a pork salad I had. I don’t know. With food poisoning you don’t know if it was something you had two days ago or an hour ago. It was still a really cool week."
While the scoreline of 0-6 1-5 makes it seem like Djokovic had his way with then world 197, Niland performed creditably given the circumstances. He also received first hand experience of the challenges everyone faces against the 12-time major winner.
“I just felt like his returns were so good. You’re on the back foot on all the returns. His depth...[Djokovic] was able to go up levels. He was probably at a point where if I increased my level by 10% he would have increased his 15 anyway. I don’t think I experienced him being at his absolute best in that match.”
The summer of 2011, where Niland became the first Irishman to qualify for Wimbledon in 27 years, was the crowning moment for a player born in Birmingham, but forged in Limerick.
Three-year-old Conor and his parents, Pat and Ray, and siblings, Gina, Ross and Ray Jr, moved from the West Midlands back to Ireland in 1984.
He had already been introduced to tennis through his family, with Gina a particularly outstanding junior.
“My sister Gina...would have been one of the best probably in Britain. My parents were practicing with her. I had a racquet in my hand and a ball in my other hand from day one. There was no first day down to the courts and meeting your coach and saying ‘oh, this is tennis’. It was always just what [the family] did.”
In order to encourage Gina, who would later become a professional and captain Ireland’s Fed Cup team, Conor’s parents installed an artificial grass court behind their house in Limerick.
Like many professional players, from Serena and Venus Williams to Alexander Zverev, Niland’s tennis education came from home. Family were “definitely” the biggest coaching influence on his development.
For variation and new hitting partners, Niland trained at Limerick Lawn Tennis Club and hit with the likes of former Fed Cup player, Fiona Long, and respected coach Tadgh Lamb. Niland's talent soon outgrew the players available to him in Ireland so he decided to develop his game across the Irish Sea.
“I was going over to England a lot at weekends to play tournaments and there were some other players over there looking at their options and what to do after their GCSEs. They were offering scholarships to players to do their A-levels, which is only three subjects as opposed to the Leaving Cert which is six or seven”
Niland found the perfect platform to encourage his tennis at Millfield school in Somerset. "There were three indoor courts, five full-time coaches, great sports facilities…so it was a really good fit.”
With the financial and emotional support of his parents, Conor attended Millfield for three years before the daunting crossroads of college or life in a tennis bag reared its head.
Niland went unbeaten in singles and doubles during his final two years at Millfield. When he won the Fitzwilliam Junior Open in the U-18 category, the highest accolade for young players in Ireland, the thought of immediately going pro was strongly considered.
“It was definitely a decision I had to make, it wasn’t a total no-brainer. I took a year off after Millfield and played full-time. Probably naively, I didn’t think I was good enough and maybe in hindsight I was to make a top 100 career out of it."
"But going back then, when you’re Irish and 19, you just don’t necessarily think you’re going to do it. I only really believed I had a chance of being top 100 or top 150 after I went to college in the States. If I had known that when I was 19, I probably would have kept going...but you never know."
Peter Wright, former captain of the Irish Davis Cup team and current head of tennis coaching at Berkeley in California, sorted Niland out with a scholarship to the renowned university. When not on the courts, Niland spent his four years there majoring in English.
He was an excellent player for the Cal Bears, going 19 singles matches unbeaten in his final year. The Limerick man finished 2006 ranked no.6 in the United States, behind John Isner at no. 2 but ahead of Kevin Anderson at no. 25.
Former world no.6 Wayne Ferreira had a crucial role in convincing Niland that he had the talent to succeed on the ATP Tour. As with most things, a vagary of life brought the pair together.
"[Wayne] married a lady who lived about half an hour away from Berkeley so he used to train with the team. Then when he retired, he was kind of at a loose end and started to help me one-on-one as well as doing a little bit with the team...he said 'I think you can be top 100' and that was a massive thing for me."
Niland played a number of Futures in late 2005, an attempt to acclimatise to the demands of the tour before he finished college the following year. He soon captured two Satellites in Switzerland and was ranked around 450 upon leaving Berkeley.
In his first few years on tour, Niland recorded a Challenger win in New Delhi and Future victories in England, Croatia and his home town of Limerick. Niland's ranking steadily improved from the 400s to 277 in 2008. Then came an unfortunate moment that would have long-term repercussions.
"I was in the quarters of a Challenger in Slovakia in September. My ranking was going well and I was starting to really make inroads in Challengers and then I fecking slipped and fell on a really wet clay court. It had basically rained the whole week...the court wasn't really ready and I slipped and hurt my hip. I was out then for three or four months."
That was the start of a series of hip problems that in the end surgery, cortisone shots and rest would not remedy. But before that came the success.
In 2010, Niland enjoyed his finest season on the ATP Tour. He won two Challengers at Ramat Hasharon, Israel and Salzburg, Austria and notched victories over Rainer Schuettler, Jerzy Janowicz and Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
On December 6th, 2010, Ray and Pat's son rose to 129 in the world, still the highest point any Irish person has reached in tennis. Later that summer, he became the first Irishman since Matt Doyle in 1982 to qualify for Wimbledon.
"The moment of qualifying, rather than actually playing in the main draw, the hours afterwards and the moment of qualifying was incredible. That was an amazing experience. That was the highlight."
Niland lost in five tense sets to Adrian Mannarino in the first round. He would have faced Roger Federer on Centre Court if he had found a route through the Italian. Still, at least there was New York.
After 28 years with a racquet in hand, 2012 saw the unfortunate cost of such application and practice. Conor's right hip was done.
"I played a Davis Cup match in Egypt. Played a great first set and then my hip started to seize up and I lost to a player I didn’t like losing to. I was like ‘I need surgery’ basically. The cortisone stuff isn’t working anymore. My rehab stuff isn’t working. I worked quite a lot on a way around it. This is April 2012. I need six months off here, there’s no point. So that was it."
As he sank down the rankings, Niland had to make a practical, if painful, choice.
"You know you’re thinking 'I’m 31 this year and OK, best case scenario at 32-odd I’m back in the top 150-100, maybe knocking on the door of some grand slams but chances are that probably won’t happen with the way it is...I spoke to my family about it, my girlfriend, and we decided yeah it’s for the best to leave it...I could keep going but I could be 34-35 finishing my tennis career and then I have to start another chapter."
After two grand slam appearances and 10 titles, Conor Niland turned the last page of his professional tennis career.
In the time since, he's married girlfriend Síne, developed a second career by studying and working in real estate, and followed Peter Wright's example in taking charge of Ireland's Davis Cup team.
"I was always able to commit to Davis Cup and it was something I really enjoyed for the week. When I look back at my career, you know you have your Grand Slams and everything but Davis Cup was definitely a great experience. I never wanted to miss it."
And going back to his playing career, how would the now coach define himself as a player?
"I was always a really solid baseliner who was athletic. What's funny is you could see that at eight and it was the same at 28. Whereas a guy who's a lefty and has all these angles and variety - that was never me."
"My parents used to really drive home that tennis is fundamentally about putting the ball in the court. Whereas a lot of other people would maybe focus on technique or developing tons of different weapons, we always [thought] 'if you can put the ball in the court, you're in a pretty good spot!"