Monday 18 December 2017

When we ruled at Wimbledon

The late 1800s saw a ­succession of Irish ­Wimbledon ­champions but Ireland's tennis pedigree didn't endure. Our reporter considers why

Conor Niland at Wimbledon in 2011
Conor Niland at Wimbledon in 2011
Joshua Pim
Lena Rice

Graham Clifford

The strawberries aren't even from Wexford. In recent years the only strong link between Ireland and Wimbledon has been in officialdom. Dubliner Fergus Murphy umpired last year's men's quarter-final between Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

You have to go back to 2011 for the last time an Irish player actually walked out on court at SW19.

Conor Niland's achievements that summer bordered on the epic. Leading 4-1 in the fifth and final set of his round one game with French player Adrian Mannarino, the Limerick man knew that a clash with Roger Federer on Centre Court lay in wait for the victor.

But it wasn't to be. With the world watching (by now the BBC were broadcasting the match live), Niland just couldn't get over the line against a player seven years his junior and ranked 126 places ahead of him. Mannarino won five games on the bounce and that final set 6-4.

"Losing that last game hurt so much. I think about it from time to time. The 'what ifs'. But it was a great achievement in reaching Wimbledon," Niland told me this week.

I was in Roehampton when he qualified for the main draw at Wimbledon in 2011. He fell to his knees after nailing that winning point. It was a glorious and emotional day for Irish sport, witnessed by no more than a few dozen people. And therein lies the problem. Tennis has rarely attracted the spotlight in Ireland it deserves.

But there was a time when things were very different as Tom Higgins, author of The History of Irish Tennis, explains. "In the late 1800s, the Irish were incredibly strong at Wimbledon. Indeed in 1890, the men's singles champion and ladies singles champion were both Irish," he says.

In that fabled year, Monasterevin-born Willoughby Hamilton was crowned King of Wimbledon while Tipperary's Lena Rice took the ladies' single title. "And what's more, the men's doubles title was won by the Irish duo of Frank Owen Stoker (cousin of Bram) and Dr Joshua Pim that same year," added Higgins.

Irish tennis was trailblazing. Four years before a ladies singles event was first held at Wimbledon in 1884, a recognised competition was held in Limerick and at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin - a point noted in the Wimbledon tennis museum to this day.

In an incredible six-year spell, four men's singles titles were won by Irish players, two by Joshua Pim in 1893 and 94, Hamilton in 1890 and by the Scottish-born Kerryman Harold Segerson Mahony in 1896.

And as Higgins notes in his book: "In 1894, we were deprived of an all-Irish Wimbledon final as Tom Chaytor, from Kiliney, had to retire from the semi-final because of blistered feet."

Pim was perhaps the pick of the Irish Champions from that era. He was referred to as "a flamboyant stroke-maker who perfected the drop volley". Lena Rice's win in 1890 secured the only Wimbledon ladies' singles title ever to have crossed the Irish Sea.

Rice holds the record for becoming a champion at Wimbledon with the fewest games won - four sets and just 35 games. In 1890, the champion from New Inn, near Cashel, had to defeat just two others to claim the throne.

Lena Rice died of tuberculosis on her 41st birthday in 1907 and to this day, the New Inn tennis club in Tipperary holds the annual Lena Rice tournament in her memory.

By the early years of the 20th century, Monaghan's James Cecil Parke, perhaps Ireland's most exceptional sportsman of all time, was causing a stir in South West London. He reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1910 and 1913 (and won the Australian Open in 1912). Parke was also capped 20-times for the Irish rugby side, was a scratch golfer, played chess competitively and was a noted athlete and cricketer. Take that Roger Federer.

Cecil Campbell reached the last eight at Wimbledon on three consecutive years (1921-23) and in 1927, a record total of nine Irish men played in the singles draw. Never before, or since, have so many Irish players graced Wimbledon on one single summer. But as the years rolled by, Irish involvement in the main draw went from a steady stream to something of a trickle.

The game became more competitive and eventually professional. It spread from mainly English-speaking countries to Scandinavia, across Europe and to South America. The Irish tennis player at Wimbledon was fast becoming an endangered species.

In 1980, both Sean Sorensen (who also lost in the first round to Rod Laver in 1977) and Matt Doyle came through the qualifier system to reach the main draw at Wimbledon. In 1983 and 84, Doyle reached the second round but as he did not become a naturalised Irish citizen until 1985 so his Wimbledon records were technically achieved by a US rather than Irish player.

So, officially, Conor Niland was the first Irish player to qualify for Wimbledon in 31 years.

"I was very aware of the historical significance of what I was doing when I walked on to the court at Wimbledon and indeed at the US Open just a few months later (where he faced Novak Djokovic in the first round)," Niland tells Review.

He'll be back at Wimbledon today as a fan but hopes that the new faces of Irish tennis can walk in his shoes and out on to a Wimbledon court.

"James McGee came close to qualifying this year and players like Sam Barry and Simon Carr have strong potential. And in the ladies' game Waterford's Sinéad Lohan clearly has what it takes to make a major impact in the game and perhaps break into the world's top 200."

But he adds: "It's not easy for Irish players. Traditionally the systems weren't put in place to compete with countries with the best courts, much better weather and easy access to great tournaments. I don't want to make excuses, but until we can convince youngsters to focus solely on tennis over other sports and put in the funding and supports needed, it's always going to be an uphill battle to qualify players for major events such as Wimbledon."

And Tom Higgins notes: "The British have poured multimillions into tennis for years. When you consider that the likes of Andy Murray came through his own route and not via any funded programme, you see their return for all that invested money is relatively little.

"It just goes to show what Irish players are up against. But I think one day it will happen. A player will emerge, and when he or she does, we have to be ready to make the most of it for the good of the game."

The History of Irish Tennis is available from the author at higgins.tom@itsligo.ie at a price of €30 plus courier

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