Courting the higher ground
Conor Niland's quiet progress has brought him ever closer to the world's top 100, writes John O'Brien
The sport's eternal beauty beguiles him. He loves it that there is no clock. Time offers no comforting hand of reassurance. You can't run the ball into the corner and wait for the whistle. You have to finish it and, until you do, you remain vulnerable. The guy you're beating is loosening up now. He has nothing to lose. You feel yourself beginning to tighten, though. The finish line is in sight, but you have to win it. There is no other way.
Last month Conor Niland found himself in a familiar position. Leading Matthias Bachinger in the second round of the Salzburg Open, a set up and 3-1 ahead in the second. Cruising. And then it came -- the muscle-tightening scent of the finish line. His concentration slipped and, sensing his vulnerability, the German pounced. Before Niland knew it, he was 5-4 down in the decider, 15-40 behind on his serve, facing the point of no return.
So he steeled himself and nerved it out. Held his serve, broke his opponent in the next and fell over the line in a heap. Three matches later, he had sealed the tournament, his second victory on the Challenger circuit this year, and banked enough ranking points to ease himself into the world's top 150. The difference between losing to Bachinger and winning the tournament was 72 ranking points which roughly translates to 25 places on the table. That's how tight the margins are.
Salzburg wasn't his best week, though. That came in Ramat Hasharon in Israel back in May. He slogged his way through five rounds in searing heat, numbering Rainer Schuettler, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2008, among his victims on his way to a win that signalled the landmark achievement of breaking the world's top 200. He winces thinking about it now: five days, five matches, four of which went the distance. A cheque for $14,400. The manna of 100 ranking points. Each one savagely toughed out and paid for.
"That week was hard work," he says. "It felt literally like I'd spent the whole week on court. The courts were slow and every day was a battle. I'd say it's the best I've ever played. Everyone I beat was either in the top 100 or had been there at some stage. But I'd been playing good tennis all year. Doha and Australia hadn't worked out, but I'd qualified for Houston and that gave me a lot of confidence. It set me up for a year. Gave me the chance to push on for the top 150."
Houston. If there was one moment that stands out, it came on the unfamiliar clay surface where, for the first time, he cleared a path through the thicket of the qualifiers into the first round proper of an ATP main tour event. His first day in the big time brought no further glory, but that didn't matter. In his third-round qualifier he'd managed to save a match point and he can think of four occasions during the year when he rescued himself from the point of oblivion. He can think of no nicer feeling. "It shows you're not capitulating," he says. "Not giving up."
Outside the bubble of the world's top 10 or 20, it is what life on the ATP tour is about. Not giving up, no matter how coarse the struggle becomes. In tennis, there are many things that can drag a player under. The unremitting grind of tour life and the bracing loneliness that can be as great a barrier as the opponent standing on the other side of the net. Even the slightest mental frailty can be a grim portent of doom.
Niland copes better than most. When the end-of-year rankings were published two weeks ago, he discovered he had risen a place to 129. It is nearly three decades since Matt Doyle, a born and bred Californian who declared for Ireland, reached a career high of 85. No other Irish tennis player has broken inside the top 200. He imagines he'll have to cross the threshold of the top 100 or make a splash at Wimbledon for the nation to sit up and take notice. No big deal, though.
"People just don't understand the depth of talent out there. They see a guy ranked 100 and think 'oh he can't be very good. He must be a part-timer'. But there are guys in the 700s and they're seriously good players. I'm not just saying that. It sounds a big number but there are hundreds of good tennis players. It's a bottleneck. Everybody's trying to beat each other. Everybody's looking for the same thing."
Before Niland, Ireland had a decent generation of tennis players: Owen Casey, Scott Barron, Eoin Collins among them. The will to support them didn't exist, though. When Niland made his Davis Cup debut against Croatia in 2000, the presence of the charismatic Goran Ivanisevic in Dublin ensured something of a media stir. But days like those have been thin on the ground. Big-time tennis has been as alien as coral reef to these shores.
In September, he turned 29. A month younger than Roger Federer, his breakthrough has come relatively late in a sport where players regularly emerge as acne-riddled prodigies. He has been full-time for just five years and isn't of a mind to wonder where he'd be had he set out sooner. After school he was offered a scholarship to Berkeley University and that was the safe punt. In California, he came under the wing of Wayne Ferreira, a former top 10 player. Ferreira assured him he could make the top 100 if he wanted it. That germinated the seed.
Years before that himself and Stephen Nugent had been given the chance to spend two weeks at the famous Bollettieri academy in Florida. Two wide-eyed teenagers gawping at world-class stars like the Williams' sisters and Petr Korda. By and large, though, thoughts of a daily regime of sleep and bashing tennis balls didn't take root. Who's to say the maturity of college wasn't precisely what he needed? And would he not have tired of the grind and quit by 22?
His sister Gina had tested the road before him. In the family Gina had been the trailblazer. When they'd lived in Birmingham, the local tennis club became their sanctuary. By the time she was 12, Gina was already recognised as one of the best of her age-group in Britain. When they moved to Limerick, they had a court installed in the back. Conor was three at the time and, already, the game was his life.
"Gina definitely had the talent," he says. "But she was probably finished at the top level by the time she was 19 or 20. She did her Leaving at 17 and deferred a place in UCD for two years to see how it went. She was going to places like Algeria and Morocco by herself and you can't imagine how tough that was. Not just to go there but to have to win matches as well. I'm sure that turned her off the life.
"We didn't know it then, but you need someone with you when you're on tour. Even just to be in your corner. It's tough to go away on your own and expect to play your best. You're in a cocoon. There's no social outlet. If you're 18 or 19 that's not easy. If it was only about ball-striking and she had a good training base and a full-time coach, she'd have been up there. She was good enough."
You learn and you adapt. You cope. There's rarely a week when Niland travels alone now. On the biggest weeks, when the stakes are highest, he tries his best to have the assistance of a coach or mentor. Sometimes his father, as in Salzburg, will ride along to provide companionship and support. He knows it is no accident that those are the same weeks when he has played best.
The big nations hold all the aces. That is a fact of tour life. They forge natural bonds between themselves and are in prime position when it comes to the distribution of wild cards for Slams or big tournaments in their own countries. Then they see the Irish guy beating a path towards the top 100 and afford him the respect he deserves and raise their game. On every level Niland meets rising ground.
He tells an illuminating story of the follow-up to his victory in Salzburg. That night he drove for two hours and spent the night in Munich. From there he flew to Copenhagen and then to Tokyo where he boarded a train for the five-hour rail trip to the city of Toyota. He won his first-round match before the jet lag had time to take hold. For the second round he was goosed. And that's the Challenger circuit, he sighs. It makes no allowance for logistics.
He's coping. Five years on tour now and each year has brought little tweaks and improvements that have heralded steady progress all the way. He's reduced his playing demands from 35 to 30 weeks and likes the extra time to chill out at home in Dublin and train under Gary Cahill at the national centre in DCU. It is a happy set-up. There are nine Irish players on the ATP ranking list. Loads of guys to hit with, a growing sense of purpose about them.
"At the start I was away on my own a lot, training alone so the difference is huge. Having a coach to work with, not having to scrape around for training partners. At DCU, I have everything I need. I'd been calling for it for a long time. A lot of guys wanted to play but we were doing it ourselves. They had a structure in place for the juniors, but nothing for seniors. Thankfully, they realised it was a good idea."
It was through Cahill's contacts that the chance arose to spend four days practising with Andy Murray in London last month. The sheer magnitude of Murray's entourage took his breath away, but on court he didn't feel as if he belonged in another galaxy. For the first two days they practised drills and worked in the gym. On the third they played a match which Murray won 6-2 7-5. Two weeks later, Niland soared to victory in Salzburg.
"If you think about it, I'm the No 2 ranked player in Britain and Ireland. I'd be No 2 in Sweden and Australia and probably top 10 in America. So I knew before going there that I'd be able to live with him. Playing with him, you feel comfortable during rallies. The difference with guys in the top 10 is that when it comes to the crunch, they go up a level. I know I can beat guys 60 or 70 in the world. I'm not going to be top 10. But it was good for my confidence. I took from it that I am on the right track."
So he's thinking maybe four more good years now. Pushing himself as close to the summit as he can. He sees how much his game has improved in the last 12 months and the benefits of working with sports psychologist Kevin Clancy, a colleague of Enda McNulty. At their first meeting, Niland outlined his goals for 2010. "Have you written them down?" Clancy wondered. Niland hadn't. "Then they aren't goals," Clancy replied.
Soon he will be writing down his goals for 2011. "To finish in the top 75," he says. "Break into the top 100 and consolidate. I've already worked out what I need to do in the first three months of the year to achieve that. We break the season down into three-month periods and work out how many points I need to get. It makes it a lot clearer. Makes it seem a lot more achievable."
He's as driven as they come. It was generally assumed when he left college that he would try tour life for a year before returning and he was grimly determined to prove the doubters wrong. Even when he played the Futures circuit, pro tennis' third tier, it never occurred to him to quit. "At times it was tough. You're playing in a dump for no points and no money but I knew if I walked away I'd be back with my tail between my legs after two months saying 'ah pro tennis isn't all that bad really'."
The challenge invigorates him. Tennis won't make him wealthy or famous and he's glad of the funding he gets from the Irish Sports Council. He receives the international category grant of €12,000 and laughs that to earn world-class level he'd have to reach No 8 in the world. And to scale the top tier, alongside the likes of Kenny Egan and Derval O'Rourke, he'd have to break the top three.
No matter. When he broke the top 150, he signed his first ever sponsorship deal with a Chinese clothing firm and is happy with what he has. In January, he'll kick off in India and Australia and hopes to mark the season by qualifying for his first ever Grand Slam proper. He saw the splash Louk Sorensen created when he made the second round in Australia last January. Indisputably good for Sorensen. And good too for Irish tennis.
He craves days like those. He thinks of June, a Davis Cup tie against Luxembourg. Win that and they earn a mouthwatering clash against Murray and Great Britain. The kind of encounter that might get a dozy public to sit up and take notice. If not, no worries. He's here for the hard road regardless. With or without your attention.