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Big read: Conor Niland's grand plans for Irish tennis

By Steven Beacom

Conor Niland was just a kid playing the game he loved. On the other side of the net was another young boy who went by the name of Roger Federer.

In the 20 years that followed one would go to become the greatest tennis star of all time, but this was to be the other's day.

"We played each other in France when we were about 12," recalled the personable Niland, as we discussed all things tennis prior to his debut match as Ireland's new Davis Cup captain.

"I think the score was 7-5, 6-2 to me. We had a coach at the match who took notes and stats and I came across them a few years later and on top of the page was the name R. Federer.

"At the time he was doing well and had just won Junior Wimbledon and I followed his career from there. He's an amazing player and it is incredible what he has achieved."

Seventeen grand slam titles no less. Birmingham-born Niland, who was brought up in Limerick, never got close to winning any but he did play in a few which given where Irish tennis finds itself in the world pecking order is probably as good as winning the French Open!

Niland, whose career high ranking was 129 on tour, is determined to move the sport forward on the island.

Appointed by Tennis Ireland as the new Davis Cup captain in January, his first tie in charge began yesterday at Castleknock Lawn Tennis Club against Belarus in the Euro/Africa Zone Group II first round. Ireland trail 2-0 after the first day following singles defeats for Sam Barry and Daniel Glancy.

The match will conclude over the weekend, but for Niland, who initially has a two year contract, it is only the start.

In Davis Cup terms his aim is promotion. Overall he is focusing on improving tennis in Ireland, north and south, and ensuring that more of our male players make it into the top 100 and more youngsters take up the game.

The 33-year-old, who retired in 2012, believes attracting more big tournaments will be key to achieving those goals.

"My primary role is as Davis Cup captain but I will be giving my perspective on the way the sport is run in Ireland and hopefully the culture will be geared more and more towards professional tennis," says Niland, who studied English at Berkeley University in California.

"I would like to see more professional tournaments staged in Ireland. The dream would be to host an ATP event or a WTA event, where you are bringing the top players of the world here. That would be a huge boost to tennis in the country and get people talking about the sport.

"Also it would give us an opportunity to have wild cards for local players who could gain vital experience and win points on the tour. It is very important over the next few years to secure more Futures events, a Challenger event and then an ATP tournament.

"I don't see why we can't make moves to try and get it done. Financially we would need one big sponsor but hopefully with the economy improving it is a possibility for the future."

On a global scale there are often comparisons between tennis and golf, which both have big money tours and four grand slam tournaments.

But on this island, the difference in success rates are like night and day, for instance while Rory McIlroy is world number one, the top ranked Irish tennis player is James McGee at 211 with just four men from Ireland in the top 1000.

"In golf the courses and facilities are renowned in Ireland which is a great foundation," says Niland.

"In tennis we don't have clay courts in Ireland and need more indoor courts too, so we are up against it on that score.

"A realistic goal for Ireland would be to have one or two guys in the top 100 in the world consistently. We want to achieve that before thinking about becoming world beaters like in golf."

He adds: "At the level we are at for individuals it is expensive with flights, accommodation and coaching. You need help from the National Federation and Sports Council, but some Federations are wealthier than others, like the Grand Slam hosting countries, France, Australia, UK and USA, who have lots of money to give to their players. Places like Ireland don't have that luxury.

"The fact, though, that we have James McGee consistently competing in Grand Slam qualifying, following on from myself, is a positive.

"I played my first Grand Slam qualifying in Australia in 2008, and it had been a decade or longer since that happened for an Irish tennis player, so now we have regular interest in qualifying. Hopefully in the next few years we will have someone in the main draw every time.

"Juniors are starting to travel more from an younger age and are getting to know what is required. Getting the mindset right is important."

Niland, who coaches juniors twice a week at the National Academy, will help with that.

Although based in the Republic, he intends coming north to see the talent as often as possible and already has a solid grasp of our best young male players, including the Bothwell boys, Sam and Peter, who he feels could be key Davis Cup players for Ireland in the future. He also rates promising Ulster teenage female player Karola Bejenaru.

Niland, a Davis Cup player for 10 years from 2002, says what he misses most about playing is competing in the biggest tournaments.

Those included Wimbledon and the US Open in 2011. In the latter he faced Novak Djokovic but had to retire early suffering from food poisoning, while at SW19 he qualified in dramatic fashion before losing in a first round five set thriller with his old friend Federer awaiting the winner.

"I wish I'd won that match at Wimbledon and been able to play Federer on Centre Court in the next round, but looking back I was match points down in the qualifying so to get to play in the main draw at Wimbledon was fantastic. It was a great reward for the work myself and my family put into my tennis all of my life," reflected Conor, whose dad Ray was a respected Mayo GAA player.

"When I played Djokovic in the US Open I got a bout of food poisoning a few days before and unfortunately had to retire a few sets in but it was still a great experience to play on the tennis court with the biggest capacity in the world."

With Federer, Djokivic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray competing at the top, men's tennis is on a high. I ask Ireland's best player of recent times, who he rates as number one.

He replies: "I think Nadal is up there at the top. I love watching him play. Federer, Djokovic and Murray are all class acts too. I've had a chance to practice with Andy and he is a down to earth guy and fantastic tennis player. I always root for him when he's playing.

"When he is in a final or semi-final there is more interest in the match over here because being from Scotland we can identify with him more. I think with him being brought up in Dunblane our tennis players can take inspiration from him."

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