Tennis is a global sport. However, according to Conor Niland, Ireland’s number one tennis player, “it is a bit of an afterthought in Ireland”.
Conor attributes this to the fact that Ireland does not have a tradition of success in the sport. He believes that it will take an Irish player breaking into the top 100 tennis players in the world to significantly increase the nation’s interest in the sport. With a previous world ranking of 129; Conor is confident that he could be the man to put Irish tennis on the map.
Born in Birmingham, England, but raised in Co. Limerick, Conor is the youngest of four kids and hails from a long line of tennis pedigree. His oldest sister Gina was Irish number one for many years and his older brother Ross has played junior tennis for Ireland. He describes his parents’ enthusiasm and encouragement as an influencing factor in his decision to pursue a life of tennis. “We had a tennis court at home in our back garden. We all played together at home and mum and dad got us really into it. They were coaching us and bringing us to tournaments so that’s how it all started. “
While Conor’s elder siblings moved away to college, he kept the family tradition going, despite the challenging lifestyle that it posed for a youngster. “I have been doing a fair bit of travelling even from a young age when I used to go to tennis tournaments in England”, said Conor. “My mum used to go with me; we would go over on a Friday night and play tennis tournaments in England on the weekend. The intense routine saw the youngster competing in two matches on a Saturday and two matches on a Sunday before flying home that night. “I used to do that from the age of 10 or 11 up until I was 14 or 15.”
Despite being based in Ireland during the early days of his career, the Limerick man moved to England to attend boarding school at the age of sixteen as a result of the challenges of developing his game here. “Essentially I had to move away to take my game to the next level. As I was getting older it was harder to find people to practice with and I used to spend a lot of time in Dublin as there were more people there to practice with.” Conor pinpoints the “depth of tennis” in Britain as a fundamental part of his decision to leave Ireland and identifies the increase in competition as necessary to improving his game. “There were always one or two in my age-group in Ireland growing up, but I think that it’s always good to play players that you’re not as good as.” According to Conor, “when I first went over I found it quite difficult and by the time I finished school I was probably one of the best in Britain and Ireland for my age so I was able to work my way up.”
Conor decided to take a year off after finishing school and he moved across the Atlantic to the United States where he spent a year playing on the US tennis circuit. Conor then attended the University of Berkeley in California where he embarked on a life of college tennis for the next four years. He enjoyed a successful college tennis career, reaching number three in the NCA US rankings, before turning professional once he had finished college.
While playing on the college circuit, Conor met and was coached by former top ten singles player, Wayne Ferreira, who helped him to continue to develop and strengthen his game. Conor has since broken in to the top 200 in the world, reaching 129 in the world at the end of last year. “He took me under his wing and coached me and gave me a lot of confidence”, said Conor. “He said to me, ‘I think you have the ability to be a top 100 player’, so he was a big help.”
Conor has won three ATP challenger events, but describes his victory at the Israel Open last year, where he beat 2008 Wimbledon semi-finalist Rainer Schuttler in the second round, as his greatest achievement to date. “Starting to beat guys in the top 100 was a step up the ladder for me and it gave me a lot of confidence. I won two challenger events last year so it was a great year for me.”
Despite turning thirty later this year, Conor believes that his best tennis is ahead of him and describes breaking into the top 100 in the world as his main goal, a feat which would allow him direct access to the main ATP draw. “It’s where the big money is and where you are playing the best players in the world so it’s what I have always wanted to do.” According to Conor there is not a significant difference between somebody ranked 100 in the world and 200 in the world, “it’s just a case of hauling yourself up the rankings really”. He said, “There are an awful lot of guys trying to break into that top 100 so it’s very competitive, but I am giving myself a chance by getting into the top 150. If I can keep up the level that I have had for the last 18 months, hopefully I can make it.”
As is the case with all sports at the highest level, Conor has had to make sacrifices and he now adheres to a strict diet and lifestyle. “Tennis doesn’t have an off-season. You have two weeks off in total so you don’t get much down time.” Conor admits that tennis can be quite restrictive on his social life, a factor which he mainly attributes to his intense travel itinerary. “You are away about 35 weeks per year. When you are a tennis player you are a tennis player”, he said. Conor has been working with a nutritionist for the past year and a half, although he describes the day in, day out grind of travelling as the true challenge. “The nutrition and practice is something that I enjoy, but it’s the fact that you don’t get much time off. It takes over what you do, which is tough.”
Life for a player outside of the top one hundred means a constant string of qualifiers, vying with other players to secure one of the limited qualifier spots for the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament. In order to qualify for the main draw, a contender who is ranked between 100 and 250 in the world must win three matches before the competition even begins. Conor has come close on many occasions. At the Australian Open in January 2010, he narrowly missed out on qualification for the main draw after going up a set in the final round of qualifiers. Despite this, Conor is optimistic about the future and is hoping that this year’s series of qualifiers will finally open the door for him.