Sunday 20 January 2019

Melanie Morris: Roll on Wimbledon as Conor aims to get in on the winning racket

At the moment, our Irish sports stars are punching well above their weight. With the Heineken Cup and now the US Open golf trophy heading back here, we're certainly having a bit of a moment in the sunshine. But -- good news -- after last night's amazing victory in Maryland, it doesn't stop there. You see, this year, we're off to Wimbledon too!

Yes, while golf might be one popular grass-based game, nothing says summer like the familiar 'thwack ... thud' of balls on the centre court of the All England Tennis Club.

And as the world's most famous lawn tennis championship starts its two-week run today, we have a worthy contender, Conor Niland, flying the Irish flag.

Conor, a 29-year-old Limerick man, has worked his way through three qualifying rounds to make it to the main competition and is the first Irish man in a generation to step onto the grass in London SW19 to take on the world's best. Before him, our last Irish hope was Matt Doyle, who was still technically an American when he played at Wimbledon in 1984, although he became an Irish citizen the following year.

So, other than a bit of pomp and ceremony, and to marvel at the firmness of Serena Williams' thighs, it's been years since we've had a decent reason to watch Wimbledon. Men's tennis died in my eyes with the retirement of John McEnroe, and without others replacing him with on-court fireworks, I just lost the love. The slick machines that were/are Sampras, Federer and Nadal -- whilst being amazing players -- just didn't strike a chord.

But now, with the rather tasty Conor Niland, we've a reason to put up with the smug television commentators, pull up a chair, turn on the telly and crack open the Robinson's Barley Water.

There's a host of great traditions around Wimbledon that set it apart from other tennis tournaments, though, and make it a very exciting fortnight.

I was always useless at playing tennis, but back in the days of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker, I loved watching it; and my mother brought me to Wimbledon on a few occasions.

I remember it would always be either swelteringly hot, or lashing rain. If wet, everything would stop -- this was before the retractable roof of the Centre Court -- and we'd head to a huge marquee for afternoon tea, Pimm's (for my mum) and completely overpriced strawberries and cream (for me).

The ticketing system for Wimbledon was tricky. You have to have a specific seated ticket for the Centre Court and Number One court if you wanted to see a match, but the rest, you could just wander around and take any available seat. And it was always more fun to watch at the outside courts, because you got so close to the action. On the big exhibition courts, the players really were like little dots in the distance, and of course even to this day, just as Wimbledon won't allow advertising or anything but pure white tennis clothes, they won't succumb to gizmos like big screens. No, one brings binoculars, of course.

Conor Niland will draw a whole new generation of Irish tennis fans to their TV sets, and perhaps if he gets through a round or two, we'll all be piling onto planes to Gatwick airport (the most convenient for SW19) to cheer him on in person.

Niland has already charmed the media with his attitude to the qualifiers. While the six British players got wild card entries, and although Andy Murray campaigned for Conor to also go straight through, our boy says he's glad he earned his place.

"I'm just delighted that I'm in and to come through the qualifying is the best way to do it, really." What a sportsman. And while he humbly remarked that "tennis isn't necessarily something people talk about in the pub in Ireland", he also noted "they understand when someone plays at Wimbledon they can obviously play a bit".

Play indeed. Conor Niland takes on the Frenchman Adrian Mannarino in round one. Let's hope our national winning streak continues.

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