Conor Niland: A life lived off broadway

When it comes to stories to tell the grandkids some day, you’re not going to trump Conor Niland.

Conor Niland: A life lived off broadway

One time he beat Federer (when they were both 12, but hey, what a line). He was one of the top three college players in all of America. He played at Wimbledon, traded shots with Djokovic at the US Open, travelled more of the world than James Bond.

Then in 2015 after a decade or more playing Davis Cup for Ireland, he was chosen to captain the team. So when you meet him here in the lavish Beacon Hotel in Sandyford, just around the corner from the property business he now works with, you could be forgiven for assuming this is the kind of spot he’d have regularly stayed in back when he was playing. In reception what appears to be a purple-dressed bed turns out to be a circular couch. Extravagant to you and me; the norm, you would think, for him. After all, his game is tennis, the most international, glamorous, sexiest individual sport of them all.

He won’t lie. That is the life for the top 10, even 100 in the world. And that is a great life.

“The problem,” he adds, “is being just a bit shy of it.”

If Niland were to pick a week that encapsulated the life of a tennis pro, it’s not Wimbledon, it’s not any grand slam, it’s nothing glam. It’s Uzbekistan.

He’d landed in the capital Tashkent, just him and another pro from England and his coach after a six-hour flight from Heathrow. That flight had been delayed which meant they’d just missed their connection. So to get to the tournament in Qarshi they had to heap themselves into a taxi. Turned out they weren’t even halfway there.

“The taxi took seven hours! No seat belt, just dirt roads, mountains and goats and the guy swerving to avoid the potholes. Then you finally arrive there and two days later you have to be ready to compete as a professional athlete. There’s so much more to it than just having to beat the other guy — who happens to be really good.”

You may not have looked at it that way. But just think about it. To be among the top 300 in the world in this game you’ve to be extremely talented. Even more so to break into the top 200.

This isn’t rugby, a sport played seriously in give or take a dozen countries. Even golf doesn’t have such a global reach. Eighteen of the world’s top 30 ranked golfers are American. Tennis has currently one male American in that bracket. Tennis has 42 different nationalities represented in its top 100 male players. Golf has 22; for all its growing popularity, its leaderboards and rankings still read more like tennis’s from 25 years ago or so.

Niland is conscious of the hardships and challenges every sport involves but the sheer scale and competitiveness of international tennis isn’t appreciated.

The players themselves realise it. It’s one of the reasons why out there on the Challenger circuit they have a common respect for one another, and a certain politeness. They’ll cross paths in some hotel lobby a lot more rudimentary than the Beacon’s, at least one of them checking out, and they’ll nod: “See you somewhere.”

That’s the most common salutation on the tour: See you somewhere. God knows where it’ll be in this game: Tokyo, Korea, Uzbekistan.

They’re not friends though. When Niland married to Síne back in April there were no fellow pros in attendance. The only one he invited was Jamie Delgado, his assistant coach with the Irish Davis Cup team, but Andy Murray’s wedding was the same day. Unless you have a few compatriots on tour with you and can split the cost of a coach, you’ve no real buddies on the Challenger tour.

“A barrier definitely goes up. Everyone is civil with one another because we have to practise with one another but it’s about the only sport where you can play a guy for three hours, battling it out for money and ranking points and then go inside and you’re sitting beside the guy in the changing rooms.

“You need a certain distance. I found myself hanging around with the doubles guys a lot because I wasn’t competing against them. You could let your guard down more easily with them.”

So ask him what word best describes the life and the reply is emphatic.

“Lonely. You’re on the road 30-35 weeks of the year, a lot of the time on by yourself. You’re not playing in front of anybody either; crowds are for the big guys, the big names. Out on the Challenger circuit, out in somewhere like Uzbekistan, all you have with you is your dream.”

Ultimately that’s what sustained him. Since he could walk he could hold a racket. Sport was always big in his family. His father Ray played in an All-Ireland minor final with Westmeath and won a senior national league medal in 1970 with his native Mayo. His mother was also from Castlebar and played tennis for Connacht. When the family moved to Birmingham the leading Edgbaston Priory Club was just across the road so they all took it up.

Conor’s sister Gina would become one of the top underage players in all of Britain. Brother Ross would beat Tim Henman in an U10 tournament. When they moved returned to Ireland after Ray took over a doctor’s practice in Limerick, they had a lawn tennis court built in the back garden. The Nilands were serious about their tennis, especially Conor.

He’d travel all over to play it. To Cork, where the old 24-hour tennis village was a godsend. To Dublin and Fitzwilliam where he’d win tournaments like the national U12s. By then he was also playing some weekends in England to get better competition. At 16 he moved there altogether for that reason and would sit his A levels there.

Then at 18 he’d head to the States for a college scholarship at Berkeley — “I know where those apartments were in relation to the tennis courts,” he shakes his head. “Terrible tragedy, but a terrific place.”

There he’d come across Wayne Ferreira, the former world number 10. The South African had just retired having a married a Californian and to help with his transition he’d help Niland with his game, acting as a voluntary assistant coach to the college’s tennis team. Ferreira told Niland he had it in him to make it as a top 100 player and so even at 29 having never played in a grand slam the Limerick man was still dreaming if hardly living the dream.

“I don’t see how anyone could love the lifestyle. It’s all about a means to an end. You just want to be in the biggest tournaments, to experience the top level. Then you can give a context for what you’ve done previously. You can bang on about being 150th in the world but people just won’t get it. You say Wimbledon and they will. That’s what would keep a lot of the guys around 100 to 200 in the world going.”

What helped him make the breakthrough was viewing those ranking points in a different way. Around 2008 he persuaded Tennis Ireland to extend their junior academy services in DCU to senior pros like himself. Suddenly he had a support system. One of the services he availed of was the sport psychologist Kevin Clancy and together they’d plot a way forward.

“The biggest thing I got from working with Kevin was sitting down and figuring how many points I needed to get to a certain ranking. Previously I’d go to every tournament with the view of winning it. But if you look at even the very best professionals, they might win at most three tournaments a year. So your goal shouldn’t really be to win the tournament! It should be more like: Right, over the next three months I should be looking to reach at least one final, another two semi-finals, another three quarter-finals; if I do that, I get 75 points, it’s a good three months.’”

But still the game presented unique mental challenges. In 2010 he’d win the Israeli Masters and the Salzburg Indoors which would move him up to 129 in the world. But he still hadn’t cracked the top 100 and now his hips were beginning to grate, curtailing the intensity and frequency of his practices. If he was going to break through, it had to happen in 2011.

In June of that year he was in Northampton trying to qualify for Wimbledon. “It was in this big cricket ground. The best of five sets. The biggest tournament in the world or nothing. Carnage.” After winning his first two matches,

Niland just had to win his third, against Nikola Mektic. He won the first two sets. Then went 5-2 up in the third. Then? Panic.

“There’s a cliché in our game: ‘You can’t pass the ball in tennis.’ It’s all on you. In soccer it’s different: you can pass the ball 10 metres whether you’re nervous or not. But in tennis if the guy puts the ball up the middle five or six times, you’ve to hit six balls. And when you’re nervous to the degree I was, you can get to a point where you can’t physically complete the stroke. It was tough. I don’t know how I got over the line. I just put the ball on the court and hoped the guy would miss.”

Mektic would, and Niland would be composed enough to play a forehand winner at match point. And that was it: 6-3, 7-6, 6-4. He’d qualified for Wimbledon, which was like winning Wimbledon.

That was the moment: The joy, the relief, the vindication. For himself, for a family that had been so committed to the sport for over 40 years. If he’d to choose one moment to relive it would be that. Wimbledon itself was still special, bringing France’s Adrian Mannarino to a fifth set and going 4-1 up in that decisive set.

“I played a really great game. Should have won it, which is annoying. When you’re trying to close out a match you try to protect it and try to become too conservative and start pushing it. But I said no, I’m going to take it to him, keep my tempo up. But I overcooked it and ended up pushing it. Pity. Federer on Centre Court would have been amazing.”

A couple of months later he’d get to play another legend in a grand slam. But again that was bittersweet. A couple of days before his US Open first-round game against Novak Djokovic he’d go out with Síne and a couple of friends for a bite to eat.

“There was a hurricane in New York that weekend and they shut down Manhattan. Loads of restaurants were closed that night so they gave us a list of restaurants that were open. We went to this place and I ordered this pork salad. And it was nice! But it was off. I couldn’t get out of bed the next day. I was always going to play but if it hadn’t been a grand slam tournament I wouldn’t have. Even in the warm-up I was getting sick.

“You never know, I could have taken the guy to 5-all in a set, maybe have sneaked a set of him. That was the killer: I couldn’t enjoy it or even try to do that.”

At 1-6, 0-5, Niland would retire. But he’s philosophical and quite humorous about it and still has a recording of it, all safe to show whatever kids Síne and he hopefully have. And in all he can look back on his entire career with a certain fondness and gratitude. He’d retire the following April. The hips were really acting up by then. At 30 was he really on for undergoing surgery, being out for six months and losing so many ranking points he’d slip back to somewhere in the 300s? A Davis Cup game in Egypt confirmed it for him. He won the first set, then could barely move thereafter. It was time.

In many ways it’s all change now. In October 2013 he’d lose his dad, Ray, to cancer. “People ask me what’s retirement been like but it hasn’t really been about that the last couple of years. It’s been more about my dad. It’s been tough, especially on our mum down in Limerick, but thankfully she’s been really strong.”

While losing a father, he’s gained a wife. And all the while he’s retained his involvement in another love of his life: The game.

In January he replaced Tennis Ireland performance director Gary Cahill as captain of the Irish Davis Cup team. Next month they head to South Africa in a tie they need to win to retain their Group Two status. With the players on the road so much of the time, much of the job is just keep in touch with them by phone and mail but they’ve reviewed extensively the previous defeat to Belarus.

“Jamie Delgado and myself both felt the doubles weren’t doing enough double specific drills, largely because they hadn’t been playing together. But since then James [McCloskey] and Dave [O’Hare] have started playing together full-time. That really helps us, to have a doubles pair on the Saturday. It takes the pressure off the single guys who are playing on the Friday and Sunday.”

He’s also coaching weekly on the ground. On Tuesday evenings he’ll coach out in Carrickmines club; then on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings he coaches the country’s top youngsters in the national academy centre in DCU. There’s a lot of talk there now about Simon Carr, the 15-year-old son of former Dublin footballer Tommy, who after sitting his Junior Cert is now going playing full-time abroad.

“I first saw Simon when he was 12 and I’ve yet to see him give less than 100% in a session. He’s from a really solid family and what’s great is he’s the one driving it on. I think he sees the challenge of it. I think he likes that tennis is the ultimate ‘all on me’ sport. He has a long road ahead of him and he knows it. Simon might have to work for a decade before he sees the return that he’s training for now which is to be the top 100. He might not break into the top 100 until he’s 25. He could maybe do it at 20, but it’s doubtful. It’s an incredibly long road either way.”

But one made that bit shorter by having the milestone and example of Niland.

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