Racquets: Niland on mission to earn date with Texas big guns
CONOR NILAND sets out on a key mission this weekend which could see him playing the likes of Lleyton Hewitt, Fernando Gonzalez and James Isner.
Fresh from his quarter-final placing in last week's ATP Challenger Tour event in Jersey, Niland resumes the chase for world ranking points in the top-tier ATP World Tour US Claycourt Championships in Houston.
Because of his world ranking of 234, the Limerick man will have to slug it out in qualifying in an attempt to nail down a place in the 28-strong main draw, and he needs to chalk up three wins in order to achieve his target.
If the Irish No 2 succeeds in this regard, he could end up pitted against the likes of Hewitt, Gonzalez or Isner. Former US and Wimbledon singles winner Hewitt is the defending champion in the Texas event, Chilean Gonzalez is placed No 11 in the world rankings, and 6ft 9ins American Isner, who defeated Louk Sorensen in the second round of this year's Australian Open, is ranked at No 21.
Originally, 24-ranked Australian Hewitt was not expected to feature in the Houston field as, after losing to Roger Federer in the fourth round of this year's Australian Open, he underwent surgery on his right hip.
But on hearing that the Adelaide native had made an unexpectedly rapid recovery from the operation, the organisers of the Houston tournament granted him a wild card.
"It would be fantastic to get a match against the likes of Hewitt, Gonzalez or Isner," said Niland, who will open his tournament campaign on Saturday.
"But first I have to win three matches, and that won't be easy."
Including the Australian Open, where he reached the third and last round of qualifying, the Houston event will mark Niland's fourth entry this year into the preliminary stages of a top-tier tournament.
His two other involvements were in the Doha Open in January, where he reached the third and last round, and the Marseille Open in March, where he advanced to the second round.
Prior to flying to the United States earlier this week, Niland was boosted by the fact that he is set to achieve a career-best mark in the singles world rankings. As a result of his run to the Jersey last-eight stage, he will improve from 234 to approximately 226 when the figures are updated next Monday.
Meanwhile, former Fed Cup ace Lesley O'Halloran and ex-Ireland Fed Cup team boss Pete Lowther feature among the Irish players taking part in this week's ITF Veterans' World Team Championships in Mexico City.
Dubliner O'Halloran, who represented Ireland in the Federation (now termed Fed) Cup from 1986 to 1998, and Dublin-based Belfast native Lowther, who presided at the Ireland helm from 1996 until 2002, figure on the over-45 women and men's teams respectively.
A total of five Irish men's teams -- over-35, 40, 45, 50 and 55 -- and three women's sides -- over-35, 45 and 50 -- are involved.