Niland's US dream ends in illness nightmare
CONOR NILAND'S dream clash with Novak Djokovic turned into a nightmare when he was forced to retire in the fifth game of the second set of their US Open first round match at Flushing Meadows last night.
Unfortunately for the Irish No 1 he contracted a bout of food poisoning on Monday night, raising doubts that he would be fit enough to take to the court against the world No 1 and current Australian Open and Wimbledon champion on the premier Arthur Ashe court.
Niland bravely elected to face up to the stunning Serb, but he was clearly handicapped by the food poisoning in both his shot-making and movement around the court. Thus, it was no surprise that the Limerick man decided to call it day after just 43 minutes with Djokovic leading 6-0 5-1.
Because of a right shoulder injury which caused him to retire in the Cincinnati final against Andy Murray 10 days ago, Djokovic had asked for a Wednesday, rather than a Tuesday, start to his US Open campaign.
This was turned down by Flushing Meadows chiefs, prompting some optimism that the winner of over $8m this year might be a little vulnerable in his clash against the Irish player. But from a very early stage the writing was on the wall for Niland, with his opponent holding serve to 15 in the opening game and breaking to love for a 2-0 lead.
After holding to 30 in the third game, Djokovic broke to a similar score for a 4-0 lead, and the 24-year-old Belgrade man was defending and attacking with equal effectiveness and his pin-point accuracy off both wings yielded him a succession of points.
There certainly appeared to be no problems with his right shoulder as he unleashed a host of searing forehands down-the-line and across the court, leaving Niland floundering as he attempted to return the ball.
After five games, Niland had won just five points, and he had not helped his cause by making an unacceptable number of unforced errors.
And his five-star performance against France's Adrian Mannarino in the first round at Wimbledon when he led 4-1 in the fifth set seemed a dim and distant memory.
Any hope that the Munster man might win a game in the opening set to give himself a badly needed boost for the second set was dashed when Djokovic broke to 30 in the sixth game, Niland firing a forehand wide on the final point in a set that lasted just 21 minutes.
The second set followed a similar pattern as the first, with the Serb holding to 30 in the opening game before Niland showed what he was capable of by producing his best shot of the match in the next game on his own serve.
With the players tied at 30-30, the Irish player wrong-footed his opponent by unleashing a blistering forehand down-the-line winner when Djokovic was expecting him to go cross-court.
This outstanding piece of play was followed by a wide forehand from Djokovic, giving Niland his first game in the contest and generating the biggest cheer from the very sizeable crowd in the 22,500-capacity stadium.
But any hope of a remarkable turn-around was rapidly extinguished when the No 1 seed reeled off the next three games without dropping a game.
"I got sick on Sunday night, early Monday morning. Basically I had food poisoning and for the last two days have been very ill -- after practice today I was ill again," Niland said.
"I've been feeling pretty rotten for a couple of days and basically it was bad timing. The timing seems pretty cruel to me. I've been a couple of years without getting any sort of food poisoning and to get it two days before the biggest match of my career seems pretty weird."
Boris Becker recently suggested that the only thing likely to stop Djokovic from winning his third grand slam title of 2011 is his own weariness. But with a nice-looking draw ahead of him -- in which the first possible opponent of any quality is Richard Gasquet in the fourth round -- the Serb should be looking at a smooth run to the second week.
The Women's world No 1, Caroline Wozniacki, was also in action against Nuria Llangostera Vives, who is ranked 125 in the world. Wozniacki needed 80 minutes to finish the job 6-3 6-1, and after the match she was asked about her new relationship with the Irish golfer Rory McIlroy. "You know, he has something I'm looking for and I have something he's looking for," she quipped, referring to the major title that McIlroy won at Whistling Straits and the No 1 status that she holds.
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