Irish tennis star Conor Niland last night admitted he blew his big chance after losing an epic first round match at Wimbledon and missing a glorious opportunity to meet the legendary Roger Federer.
The 29-year-old from Limerick, ranked 184 in the world, looked on course for a dream second round meeting with the Swiss icon, leading 4-1 in the final set, only to let a famous victory slip away on Court 17.
Niland, the first Irish player to compete in the men's singles event since Matt Doyle in 1984, eventually lost 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-4 to Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, number 55 in the world.
Roared on by a vocal Irish support in his first Grand Slam event, Niland was inspired to claim the first set.
The unconventional Mannarino took the next two, including the third on a tie-break which the Limerick man should have won.
To his credit Niland bounced back from that by clinching set number four, taking a compelling encounter into a decider.
The Irish support was whipped into a frenzy early in the fifth, even breaking into a rendition of Fields of Athenry, when their new hero broke twice to lead 4-1.
But after the ecstacy came the agony as Niland wilted and Mannarino upped the ante, winning FIVE games in a row to triumph 6-4 and end one of the most entertaining encounters of the tournament so far.
Understandably Niland, who had gone through qualifying to reach the main draw, was bitterly disappointed.
“Closing out matches is the most important thing, so I do feel like I've let myself down a bit.
“I'm disappointed that I didn't find a way to win it,” he said.
“Being here has been a great experience. The last week has been really amazing apart from the last 15 minutes which kind of spoiled it.”
When asked if he thought at 4-1 up in the final set, glory beckoned, Niland replied: “No, I’ve played enough tennis matches to know the lead in a big match like that can sometimes get away from you.
“I didn’t feel that nervous but I definitely started to make more errors and started to make unforced errors.
“He played a good game at 4-1 which gave him a little bit of momentum but obviously I stopped playing the way I had been.”
Niland hailed the “brilliant fans” and in an attempt to stay upbeat, he added that his practice sessions at Wimbledon and playing in the event itself has him itching for more Grand Slam action even though, at 29, in tennis terms, he is in the autumn of his career.
“You lose close matches all the time as a player so I’d like to think that I’ll be okay and bounce back.
“When I lost the last round of qualifying in Australia at the start of 2010, it was the most disappointing loss of my career and I ended up having a great year.
“So hopefully I can use this as a springboard to get my ranking up and be here next year,” he said.
“I haven’t had that many opportunities to play guys in the top 50, but I’ve played a lot of guys between 50 and 100 in the last two years and I always feel very comfortable out there with them.
“Part of my recent spurt has been down to belief, putting myself into the situation where you play guys of that ranking.
“You get confidence when you push on from there. When I was 18 or 19, I thought guys in the top 100 were just unbeatable.”