“I should have been the one to play Federer on Centre Court.”
Saturday, July 18th, 2011: Conor Niland has just beaten Nikola Mektic from Croatia in straight sets to qualify for his first-ever Grand Slam after many attempts.
However, this isn’t just any Grand Slam. This is Wimbledon, the pinnacle event, and a tournament that Niland has followed intently since childhood.
“It was the best moment I ever had on a tennis court. It was my first Grand Slam and for it to be Wimbledon, which is the most special Grand Slam for every tennis player, and for it to be close to home was great.
“My coach took a video on his phone of the match point as it happened and I just went straight down on my knees and it just looks like a total feeling of relief. I generally found that my biggest wins in tennis, you get a feeling of peace. You’re not jumping around or high-fiving people, there’s more just a real sense of satisfaction internally.”
In doing so, the then 29-year-old became just the second-ever Irishman to qualify for the main draw at SW19.
At the height of summer, Irish sports fans are usually swept up in GAA action but for one week in July 2011, all eyes were on tennis and the happenings in Wimbledon. Limerick pubs were packed with locals eagerly awaiting their local tennis hero to take to the court.
Meanwhile, over in London, Niland was taking the experience in his stride. Having qualified on a Saturday, he had to wait until Tuesday for his first-round match against Frenchman Adrian Mannarino. He spent the intervening days soaking up the atmosphere and letting his excitement build ahead of the clash.
“My brother has lived in London for a long time, relatively close to Wimbledon so I’m very familiar with it and would have gone there as a child. I was definitely able to soak it up. There was a bit of time to be around the grounds and enjoy it.”
“It’s a really special place, I go back every year and it’s got this atmosphere and it’s hard to put your finger on why it’s so great but it’s just really special. You still get it now but obviously it was more heightened when I was playing. There was so much excitement in building up to play in Wimbledon.”
Wimbledon has always been a major part of Niland’s life. As a nine-year-old, he travelled over to watch his sister compete at the Junior Wimbledon tournament. Twenty years later, he was the competitor. This time, however, Irish fans filled the area and made their voices heard as they cheered on their first Wimbledon player in 30 years.
Despite that hype, Niland remained calm in the build-up to the match. The fact that he was making his Wimbledon debut at 29 allowed him to view the experience from a different perspective.
Eventually Tuesday rolled around and, flanked by two bodyguards, Niland made his way onto Court No. 17, somehow managing to keep his emotions in check despite the noise of the swelling crowd.
“I didn’t feel nervous really, I felt a little bit nervous but not in a negative way, I felt excited. I could see lots of familiar faces in the crowd. I had played my opponent before and had matched up to him so I felt quite comfortable out there actually.
“The crowd were outstanding. They created a buzz on site, I think people who wouldn’t necessarily have been into the match were coming down at the end and watching because it went to five sets and there was so much noise. At the start, all the seats were full but by the end, even the gangways and walkways were packed, people behind were standing up and peering over.”
What transpired on court that day is something that remains with the Limerick man to this day.
“I think about it nearly every day, not in a ‘head in hands’ sort of way but it definitely pops into my head every day. I would have loved to have won and I should have won. I should have been the one to play Federer on Centre Court.
“It’s a bit of a bittersweet memory but at the same time, it’s was 90 percent a positive thing and 10 percent a negative. I could easily not have played in Wimbledon but I have that experience.
“I think it made it easier that I was able to qualify for the US Open and get on a big court against Djokovic so that helped me process missing out on playing on Centre Court. I can’t change it and I’m fine with it now but it’ll be with me forever.”
At around the four-hour mark, Niland took a 4-1 lead in the fifth set after a pulsating contest. To word it differently, he found himself just two games away from facing Roger Federer on Centre Court in the second round.
Then, Mannarino found his rhythm and the momentum quickly swung.
“In fairness to him he kind of battened down the hatches, he didn’t make a mistake. I tried to stay aggressive, with my game style I tend to be a little bit passive under pressure so I tried to stay aggressive and on the front foot and not play too simple and too safe.
“He stayed really solid, it just happened really quickly then. It definitely wasn’t a tiredness thing it was just a shift in momentum I suppose and it just happened really quickly.”
Alas, there was to be no fairytale ending for Niland despite the backing of the boisterous crowd. The epic encounter finished 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-4 in favour of the Frenchman and his short-lived Wimbledon dream was over.
Niland was undeterred by the result, instead, he flew through the qualifying rounds of the US Open later that year before being drawn against Novak Djokovic in the opening clash. However, his performance was hampered by illness and he was forced to retire from the match.
So 2011 was a year of great highs for the Dooradoyle native but also one of major disappointments. Still, nine years on, he is able to look back on his Wimbledon experience with fondness and remember it as one of the greatest achievements of his seven-year career.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit ahead of the US Open, but I’m also very proud that I won three challenger singles events as well as a $100,000 challenger in Israel, the Israel Open.”
“It’s funny, to qualify for the Grand Slams, you have to win three matches, to win a challenger, you have to win five and the players you’re playing against are exactly the same if not tougher in a challenger. So I think it’s actually harder to go and win a challenger than it is to go and qualify for a Grand Slam.
“But definitely Wimbledon was the highlight of my career, it is my biggest tennis achievement. From a pure tennis perspective, it’s probably arguable, I would say maybe my win at the Israel Open was a better effort for that week, but yeah, Wimbledon is tough to beat.”
A trip to SW19 to catch up with his friends has become a yearly pilgrimage for Niland who can now enjoy the tournament purely as a tennis fan. Had it not been for the cancellation, he would have certainly spent this Sunday afternoon enthralled in the men’s singles final.
One disappointment for Niland is that no Irish person has been able to follow in the footsteps in the almost-decade since his own Wimbledon journey. However, he remains hopeful that one year when he travels to London, he will be able to cheer on an Irish competitor with as much support as he received in 2011.
“We have some good prospects, like our number one Simon Carr, he’s young and he’s at a good ranking for his age and Georgia Drummey is our best prospect on the ladies side and she looks like she has a chance. But apart from that, not a lot has happened and it’s disappointing to see.”
“It’s disappointing, it’s been nine years now and unfortunately no one has done it since so it’s a long time. It was a great honour [to be the first Irishman in 30 years] and I was very aware of that and tried to break that barrier I suppose. Unfortunately, we haven’t really capitalised on that, but still, I like to think that I gave people a bit of belief that they could do it themselves.”
Originally published on July 12, 2020.