Heartache as Niland falls short in thriller
Published 22/06/2011 | 05:00
WELL, THERE are limits. Ireland have already shown the English how to play cricket this year, after all. Yesterday, as though in atonement, an Irishman came to Wimbledon and produced a performance straight out of the English manual of plucky failure.
The pity of it was that Conor Niland had seemed to show all the fortitude and ambition that elude so many English wildcard players when they come here.
In a marathon slugfest with Adrian Mannarino, the first Irishman to play here in 27 years stood on the brink of a second-round tie with Roger Federer.
It was the match of the tournament to date, but Niland's pride will be tempered by the rueful knowledge that he should have won with something to spare.
Having broken the Frenchman's serve for a second time in the fifth set, his destiny was in his own hands at 4-1. But he promptly contrived to lose five consecutive games. From looking forward to the biggest match of his career, he was suddenly looking back at the biggest match of his career -- and a scoreline of 4-6 6-4 7-6 4-6 6-4.
Making his Grand Slam debut at 29, however, he had certainly done himself proud over the past four hours. Certainly there will be no better atmosphere here this week than was generated by his compatriots squeezed around Court 17.
Half of Limerick appeared to be there, and every ebb and flow in his fortunes was raucously amplified. His opponent obligingly played the villain, arguing with the umpire and remorselessly spraying groundstrokes to the corners.
How the fans roared, then, whenever their man rose to a crisis -- never more so, perhaps, when he gave himself two set points in the third by flinging himself full length to stun one dead over the net. But Mannarino salvaged the game, won the tie-break, and showed terrific spirit to withstand the unsparingly partisan uproar that greeted his every error.
Despite his final-set collapse, Niland insisted that he hadn't lost his focus with the victory line almost within his grasp.
"There was no way that I thought that the match was over, and I definitely wasn't complacent," he insisted. "I still had to win a minimum of two more games to win the match. I think the situation was due to the fact that I started to make more errors than I had done earlier in the match, and that he (Mannarino) upped his game as well."
Breaks in the third and fifth games of the final set catapulted the Irish No 1 into that commanding 4-1 advantage. But with the finish line in sight, Niland's game unravelled.
The signs were ominous when Mannarino broke back in the sixth game for the loss of only one point, hitting a forehand crosscourt winner before the left-hander squared the set and the match by breaking Niland in his next service game.
By this stage the momentum had significantly shifted to Mannarino, and he proceeded to reel off the next two games and close out the match by subsequently dropping just four points.
"Obviously it's a huge disappointment to lose the most important match in my career and one that I definitely should have closed out," admitted the 181-ranked Niland.
"And, of course the fact that the winner meets Federer in the second makes the result even more disappointing."
Federer, meanwhile, will note that Mannarino mustered just four aces over the afternoon.
Overall there has so far been precious little sign of any man rocking the boat, and Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro all briskly dismissed their first opponents in straight sets. (© Independent News Service)
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