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'I'll always have regrets that I didn't win that match. I should have played Federer on Centre Court'

Five years ago, Conor Niland conjured the performance of his career only for 15 minutes to spoil his day.

Niland acknowledges the crowd as he walks off.
Niland acknowledges the crowd as he walks off.
Image: Oli Scarff

NEVER HAD THE Fields of Athenry been heard around the All England Lawn Tennis Club before. It’s unlikely to happen again – but for this one afternoon, Ireland’s Conor Niland was the story of Wimbledon.

It’s a story he can, in years to come, tell the grandkids about. The time he became only the second Irishman to qualify for the main draw at Wimbledon in the open era. The time he very nearly played Roger Federer on Centre Court.

There was no fairytale ending everybody watching that day longed for. Niland came so close. He had the match won but somehow lost it. He just couldn’t finish the job and at the top level the margins can be so fine.

Level at two sets apiece with France’s Adrian Mannarino, the Limerick native found himself in the driving seat. A double-break up in the deciding set, the biggest win of his career was within grasp. He should have won with something to spare.

Then, at 4-1 and 30-15 up, it all fell apart. Mannarino – ranked 55th in the world – seized his chance and turned the screw. All of a sudden, Niland fell away.

4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-4.

Five years on, that scoreline doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. Even now, the ‘what ifs’ often still reverberate for Niland.

“It’s disappointing because I know I was the better player on the day,” he tells The42, looking back on that indelible afternoon.

Tennis - 2011 Wimbledon Championships - Day Two - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club It was a bitter pill to swallow.

“I had chances perhaps even in the fourth set and certainly 4-1 up you don’t generally lose a lot of matches from that position. Unfortunately it didn’t go my way and absolutely I’ll always have that regret that I didn’t win that match.”

Niland had been knocking on the door for the previous 12 months. Victories on the grass courts at Nottingham and Queen’s in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon held him in good stead. Something just clicked that week.

After safely negotiating the first two qualifying rounds at Roehampton tennis club, he eventually saw off Croatian Nikola Mektic to make history. It must have felt like winning Wimbledon.

Not since Sean Sorensen in 1980 had Ireland been represented in the main draw at SW19. Matt Doyle featured in 1984 but technically he was still American that year, only declaring for Ireland the following season.

“After all that happened it’s easy for me to forget that I saved match points in the first round of qualifying against a French guy,” Niland continues. “It could have been so different if I hadn’t saved myself there.

“It makes it a little bit easier to swallow but it’s something I still think about quite a bit I suppose, the fact I was almost on Centre Court playing Federer.

“But it’s not really much good me thinking about what might have been now. It just wasn’t meant to be.”

So close, yet so far. He may have been out there for more than four hours but the moment came and went in a flash. From a commanding position, Niland was powerless to avoid defeat.

Tennis - 2011 Wimbledon Championships - Day Two - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club Niland had played the game of his life, outplaying his opponent, but couldn't finish it off. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“I remember trying to stay aggressive, I didn’t want to at 4-1 to be too passive and wait for mistakes,” Niland, who was ranked 181st in the world at the time, recalls.

“When you’re trying to beat a guy who is sort of top 50 in the world you can’t really rely on him making errors.

“I tried to keep up my level of play in terms of being aggressive but lost a longish point at 30-15 up. If I had of won that point to make it 40-15 to have a cushion, I would have likely held and it would have been 5-1. But he broke back straight away, it was 4-2, then he held for 4-3 and then all of a sudden in the space of four or five minutes it was gone. 

“He hit great returns and my serve wasn’t a shot I always got free points on so I wasn’t able to rely on my service game. 

“I’m delighted that I got the chance to play in the tournament and put in a good performance and that was obviously a positive but you can’t help but think back. It’s something I’m perfectly comfortable with.”

In the immediate aftermath, Niland’s pride was tempered in the knowledge that 15 minutes at the death of an epic five-setter cost him dearly.

He returned home a couple of days later to be greeted by endless media requests. Outside of the Irish tennis community, Niland would have been a relative unknown so the added attention was more than welcome – but trying to deal with the toughest loss of his career at the same time proved difficult.

“It was funny because there was a lot of media interest and the general feeling was of pride and positivity,” Niland explains.

Tennis - 2011 Wimbledon Championships - Day Two - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club Bitter disappointment but also pride. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“Of course there was much to be positive about and they were celebrating my achievement but at the same time I was trying to get over the hardest loss of my life.

“It was all part of it and was brilliant. I enjoyed all the talk about it and it created a genuine buzz in Ireland and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. Putting tennis on the front pages in Ireland because it hasn’t happened very often.”

This time of year always rekindles the memories. He visits Wimbledon every year and even wandered down to Court 17 on his first return. It was a lot quieter then he remembers.

“The crowd were exceptional the day,” he says. “Even other players from the tour in the locker room were commenting on this noise that was coming from Court 17. It created a great buzz for the tennis neutral, a qualifier against a guy fifty in the world.

“It created an atmosphere in itself and people were drawn in by the Irish crowd. The home fans were supporting me too. There were just a massive number of people, it was full to capacity. It made the whole thing even better.

“I had my coach, my parents, my brother and a couple of friends over there that week. I was playing really good tennis that summer and I took it into that week.

Tennis - 2011 Wimbledon Championships - Day Two - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club There was a healthy Irish contingent around Court 17 that afternoon. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Later that year, Niland continued his impressive form by progressing to the first round at the US Open. All the hard work was rewarded with a draw against Novak Djokovic in Flushing Meadows, only for a bout of food poisoning to hamper his performance.

A constant battle with hip problems meant he was forced to call time on his career in 2012 – but he retired with a CV furnished with three Challenge Tour titles, two Grand Slam appearances and memories to last a lifetime.

“I can’t believe it’s five years,” he adds. “It’s mad. It has gone by so quickly. It’s definitely right up there as the proudest moment of the career.

“Who knows what might have happened had I held and won those two games. Who knows but I’m just happy to look back on it and have those memories and to say I played at Wimbledon.”

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