Nearly man Niland not giving up on the dream

2011 saw Conor Niland on the crest of a wave with qualification for Wimbledon and the US Open, however, the reality of daily life on the professional tennis tour can be far from glamorous. Ewan MacKenna reports.

CHANCES are, you dropped in on his life at the best of times and got out while the going was still good.

Wimbledon 2011? You saw it. US Open 2011? We’re pretty sure you witnessed that too. But to think that is Conor Niland’s life is to see a person on the street in Armani, without realising they live in a bed-sit. While he briefly brushed against glamour, this is a story of sport on the breadline. Just like the Hollywood actor starts off in a local amateur dramatic society, the pro tennis player starts off in the mire too. Only, at 30, Niland is still there, always a racket string or two from a fortune.

Just a year ago the Limerick man reached 129 in the world rankings, inches from the gold mine inhabited by the lucky 100 who automatically qualify for grade one events. Yet in seven years on tour, Niland has won €186,249. That’s a little over €26,000 a year. Working on minimum wage would have seen him go close to that, and at least then his job wouldn’t have incurred costs of close to €60,000 a year.

“I just about broke even the last couple of seasons on the Challenger Tour and they were my good years,” he laughs. “Money at the top is fantastic but it’s a quick drop off. It’s a different world I live in.”

Little wonder then, that when an American blogger emailed a player at Niland’s level recently, the exchange went as follows: “How would you describe life on the ATP Tour compared with the Challenger circuit?”

“We are always broke and we can’t get laid.”

Niland explains: “Wimbledon and that side of it is quaint but I think it’s a misunderstood sport. It’s a lot grittier a life than people think. It’s tough. There is nobody at the matches we play. And the places can be a little bit uninspiring like in the middle of industrial estates inGermany. Plus it’s relentless. I got to the final of a tournament in Salzburg on a Sunday, got a lift to Munich airport straight after, flew to Japan, played a match there on Tuesday and won. People think it’s crazy but it’s what you do. It’s what you have to do if you want to make it.”

But even then there are no guarantees. Having been awarded a scholarship to UC Berkley in 2000, Niland peaked at a dizzying number three in a US collegiate system that was dotted with heavyweights like John Isner. His coach, former world number six Wayne Ferreira, told him hard work could see him make it.

“There are guys who know they are going to be top-20 or top-50,” says Niland. “Then there are a group and it’s hard to know if they’ll be 600 or 100. I was one of those. But Wayne had belief and told me to keep at it.”

So Niland did, but while his game improved, the breakthrough still awaits. And now, for the most part, his life is composed of stories that amuse, but at the time didn’t.

Playing an event in Uzbekistan not so long ago, Niland flew into Tashkent and was met by organisers. He knew there was a taxi ride to the venue but didn’t realise it would take six hours through mountain roads populated by goats. “I had to change money for the taxi, handed in about €40 and could have done with a wheelbarrow.”

In fact even the relative highs could be tainted if he weren’t used to the lifestyle.

It’s tales like that which made 2011 all the more special. Inconsistency may have seen his ranking tumble but there were two remarkable Grand Slam appearances. At Wimbledon he got to practice with the then-boyfriend of his dream girl, Russian superstar Maria Kirilenko, before going up a double-break in the final set of the first round. At that point talk in the raucous stands turned to a rematch with Roger Federer, who Niland had beaten aged 14. In the end though, he lost to Adrian Mannarino 6-4 in the decider. “I do beat myself up over it. I’m not angry with myself, just disappointed.”

But nothing compared to the disappointment he felt at Flushing Meadows in what had started off as the greatest experience of his life. Drawn to play Novak Djokovic in front of close to 25,000 people in the towering Arthur Ashe Stadium, he admits: “I started to feel a part of something. Sky Sports were in the lobby one day and staff took notice of me. It felt good.”

However, two days before the first serve, he went for a meal in Manhattan and got food poisoning from no more than tomato salad and pork.

“There was a hurricane that weekend and I don’t know if a fridge had been turned off or electricity was down. Ironic though. Given where we play, I’m conscious of food. I even try to avoid salads because they’re washed in water. Yet in a fancy restaurant it all went wrong.”

In the end Niland won just a game and retired late in the second set. The following week he was back checking the fact sheet that comes with each Challenger event, giving directions and showing suitable hotels to endure cabin fever in while watching the same stories crop up on CNN every 15 minutes. He still didn’t feel the best but decided to play because withdrawal would have meant a fine.

“It was a bit like going into the office after being away on holiday for two weeks but that’s tennis.”

So close and yet so far. If anything, a life on the back roads has taught Niland he can accept failure because everyone fails at something. But still he can’t accept not trying.

* Conor Niland will not be taking part in the national indoor tennis championships in the David Lloyd Riverview, which runs until New Year’s Eve, as he is flying out to a tournament tomorrow.

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