Raising a Racquet

April 22, 2006

Senior Conor Niland came to Berkeley four and half years ago hoping to improve his tennis game.

'I thought it would be good for me to come here and get a degree and play really good tennis,' Niland said. 'And also improve my game for a few years before I go back on tour. It worked out really well; I got good coaching and I'm getting a degree out of it.'

The Limerick, Ireland, native knew Cal head coach Peter Wright from the Davis Cup. 'I've known him for so long,' Niland said. 'He played Davis Cup for Ireland. He also coached me at the Davis Cup as well.

'He's all about raising your tennis IQ,' Niland said. 'It comes to a certain level in tennis where everyone can all hit the ball well and is a really good athlete. But it takes shot selection, game planning and strategy to take the game to the next level.'

Improving his IQ is exactly what Niland has done in his time at Cal. At the conclusion of his freshman year, Niland held a No. 84 national ranking after he complied a 7-3 singles record in the third position and went 3-0 in the second position. Making a steady climb by his sophomore year to No. 36 in the country, Niland led the team in victories with 27 singles wins. His junior year was cut short in 2004 by a wrist injury, forcing him to redshirt. Niland bounced back with successful junior campaign and a No. 12 ranking at the end of last season.

Niland decided to take the 2005 fall season off to improve his world ranking on the pro circuit. 'I wanted to be in the top 500 in the world because it means you can get into the majors events,' Niland said. 'Looking back on it I didn't realize how hard it would be. It went well. My goal was also to win a tournament; I won a couple in Sweden.'

Since he returned to Cal this spring he has not disappointed. Niland started the season unranked - primarily due to not participating in fall tournaments. But he has steadily climbed in the national rankings from No. 41 to No. 11 and now to No. 3.

'Two weeks ago when the ranking came out I was a little disappointed I had not moved into the top 10,' Niland said. 'Then I realized I only started competing in January, where guys like Benjamin (Kohlloeffel of UCLA) have been playing all year and they have 30-plus wins. Even though they have a few losses, they have a certain amount of ranked wins over guys that are ranked higher. I just try to win and improve in every match. The rankings are something I don't want to think about too much and I think players and guys I'm playing don't necessarily look at where I'm ranked, but where I should be ranked.'

Niland boasted the country's best winning streak at 18-0, going into Saturday's match against Stanford. He has posted major wins this season, including two upsets against No. 1 ranked Kohlloeffel, then-No. 4 Scott Doerner of Pepperdine, 6-4, 6-3 and then-fourth-ranked Lars Poerschke of Baylor, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.

'Some days I'm more relaxed then others,' Niland said. 'I'm a bit of a perfectionist. It's something I try to work on. I need to find a happy medium.'

He added, 'It's been fantastic here. I think it's exceeded my expectations. I knew academically it was world class. Athletically, the facilities are great. We have nothing like them, really, in Ireland. So to be able to have first-class academics and athletics is great. Then the relationships I've had here and the friends I've made on the team and in class have been good.'

Niland will graduate in May with a degree in English before entering the tour full time. Graduate school is an option for the future pro.

'You never know what is going to happen,' he said. 'I will be traveling so much in the next couple of years, playing on the tour. But I'm thinking about law school after I'm done with tennis.'

His non-tennis career may be up in the air, but tennis will always be a sure thing for Niland.

One word with Conor Niland...

Tell me the first thing that comes to your mind, Conor...Tennis?
Niland: Sunshine.
Coach Wright?Niland: Blonde
Niland: Different
San Francisco?
Niland: Over there.
Niland: Too close
Your team?
Niland: Good guys.
Niland: Great.

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