THE life of a pro-tennis player is a lonely one - endless hotel rooms, strict training schedules, thankless matches against tough opponents, a life spent travelling the globe. For an Irish pro, who rarely, if ever, sees any compatriots on the tour for 11 months of the year, it is even harder.
Then, for Limerick tennis pro Conor Niland, 29, to experience a riot of colour, sound and overwhelming support on his debut at Wimbledon in June, it was like all of his dreams had come true. Not only was he playing at his favourite tournament for the very first time - arguably the world’s most prestigious - after almost a decade on tour, but everywhere he looked around the court he was surrounded by family, friends and screaming supporters, a concept almost alien to him in the lonely world he more regularly inhabits.
“I would look into the crowd and see my friends, see people I played tennis with and my family - it was like I knew every single person personally, it was unbelievable,” laughed Niland this week, speaking as he collected the Limerick Person of the Month award for his exploits at Wimbledon.
“It was incredible to have that. The fact that it was at Wimbledon as well was the best part, that I was able to share it with everybody, and they were there and able to watch - it meant a lot. Definitely the tough thing about being a tennis player is not the matches, or the training, it is the lifestyle, being on the road and not necessarily having that support.”
Ultimately, while he lost a marathon, four hour first round match against France’s Adrian Mannarino, having been 4-1 up in the final set and facing the prospect of playing six-time Wimbledon champ Roger Federer in the second round, being surrounded by that blanket of support helped him deal with the crushing defeat.
“When I lost the last round of qualifying in Australia years ago it really stung for a long time, I would think about it and it really bothered me that I had lost,” he explained.
“I have watched the video of the Wimbledon match recently and I do feel like I should have won, I feel like I was the better player on the day, I just kind of had it inside and gave it to the guy. So that is tough to take, but I haven’t been dwelling on it. I should be losing sleep over it when I think about it, but the reaction was so positive directly after the match and subsequently that it is hard not to look at the whole experience as a great thing.”
He added: “Basically people’s reactions to it made it a lot easier, I wasn’t dealing with the loss just myself, but everyone was really positive about it. I think if I was in that position again, I would deal with it better”.
The Limerick man had faced defeat and match point in the first round of qualifying for Wimbledon, so says he “would have taken that if you told me at 5-4 down in the third in the first round that I would get to play a five setter at Wimbledon and have a lot of people there to watch it”.
He is hoping his success will help others coming through, not least young Limerick prospect Sam Barry, who is expected to make a breakthrough in years to come.
“People can relate to it a little bit, an Irish guy doing it, so the more kids who play tennis, the more who see ‘if he can do it’ - it removes a mystique,” he said.
In the meantime, he heads to New York on Saturday to try and qualify for the US Open, the last grand slam of the year, and you wouldn’t bet against him.
“I am looking forward to that - I am playing good tennis, so that is the important thing,” explained Conor.
“I played well there last two years, I won matches in qualifying both times, so this will be my third time. I like the courts because that is what I played on in college, that surface and those conditions, so it is one of my favourite tournaments. I definitely feel like I am playing good enough tennis to qualify.”
The Limerick Person of the Month is sponsored by the Clarion Hotel, Limerick Leader and Southern.