Neil Harman

Conor Niland lays off the black stuff to show he is made of right stuff

Neil Harman Tennis Correspondent,The Times, New York
August 29 2011


Missing a drop of the black stuff at the wedding of John Doran, the former Ireland Davis Cup player, in Manhattan on Saturday did not, for once, unduly concern Conor Niland, ranked No 199 in the world.


There will be plenty of time for celebration in a few days.


If Niland felt a bit of a wallflower as the party gathered momentum around him, the case for sobriety was overwhelming. For, having qualified for the US Open for the first time, a feat he accomplished at the All England Club in June, the mainstay of Ireland’s tennis was handed the match of his dreams, against Novak Djokovic, the the world No 1, Wimbledon champion and 2011 trailblazer.


These are the moments that make worthwhile the common downsides of playing this game professionally, chugging round the world for an ATP ranking point or two, taking on the chin the bitter first-round defeats in Challenger tournaments, frantically checking out of hotels and rebooking flights so as not to miss the signing in cut-off at the next event — essentially living from hand to mouth. It is a classic encounter of the haves against the has very little.


Unless the Nilands of this world endure, there is no professional tennis. Which is why the thought of him stepping out on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the next 48 hours is so very heartening. When he sank to his knees after middling a forehand return on the first match point of his final qualifying round victory over Matwe Middlekoop, of the Netherlands, on Friday, it was just as profound as Djokovic doing precisely the same when his dream was realised on Centre Court this year.


Niland may garner only a handful of games against the rampant Serb but it sure beats the hell out of going all the way to Penza in Russia for an ATP Challenger last month and having to retire after one set because his hips were hurting. Indeed, Niland has required cortisone injections in both hips in the past few months, deciding against the full-on surgery that would probably have meant an enforced retirement from the sport.


“I don’t know if you noticed but in the first round at Wimbledon [he lost to Adrian Mannarino, of France, from 4-1 up in the fifth set] I wasn’t really walking straight,” he said. “It didn’t affect the way I played but I’d been on a lot of painkillers. I didn’t play or train that much after Wimbledon so my recent results have been pretty patchy. It’s funny but I was playing better last year and I didn’t qualify for the slams, and this year I’ve been able to peak at them.


“I’d always felt I was good enough to be in the main draw of slams, but it wasn’t happening, which was probably more a mental barrier to get over the line, to get used to being in that situation and being able to perform when it mattered in tough matches. Wimbledon definitely helped me in that respect, so I’m glad after all I didn’t get a wild card there.


Niland, of course, is relishing his meeting with Djokovic. “It’s a pretty great feeling,” he said. “It can be nerve-racking trying to get through [to a grand-slam event] because it is such a justification for what you do during the rest of the year. Hopefully I can break away from that. I can just go out against him and, hopefully, play relaxed.”


Andy Murray was among those pressing for Niland to be given a wild card into the Wimbledon championships, praising the indomitable work ethic of the 29-year-old, who was born opposite Edgbaston Priory in Birmingham but moved to Limerick when he was 3. “That was brilliant and showed tremendous respect for me from someone like Andy who I admire so much,” Niland said.


That Ireland is at present at the same Davis Cup level as Great Britain (Europe Africa Zone II) on a veritable funding pittance, speaks volumes for the likes of Niland and Louk Sorensen, who has joined him in the first round here and plays Robin Söderling, the No 5 seed from Sweden. At 29 and 26 years of age respectively, their spirited displays have left the cash-rich British game looking very wan by comparison.


There was one British man in qualifying, James Ward, who lost in the opening round and is already in Bangkok at his next tournament. From the women’s draw, Laura Robson successfully negotiated three qualifying rounds for the first time in her career, a substantial achievement, especially as she was asked to play on the No 4 Court here where she had blown her chances in the previous two years in the final round of qualifying.


It would be interesting to know how much has been invested in Robson at the age of 17 and how much in Niland as he approaches 30. It is a different world.