WATERFORD CITY, Waterford, Ireland
— With more than 40 tennis clubs listed in the Dublin area, it is safe to say that the sport of tennis is robust in Ireland. This enthusiasm is not matched, however, by achievement in the international arena, at least as of late.
Hopes that that lackluster record could change were lifted June 18, though, when Limerick's Conor Niland surprised Wimbledon watchers and became a last-minute qualifier. Niland, 29, is the first Irishman to compete there since Matt Doyle in 1984. If successful in his first match, the Irishman is likely to face tough opposition in superstar Roger Federer, whom he faced once before, defeating him at the under-14 level. (Niland might draw inspiration from County Down native Rory McIlroy's victory this weekend at golf's U.S. Open.)
The last Irish player to raise Irish spirits, and glasses, was the United States-born Doyle, who, in 1982, reached the final 16 of the prestigious U.S. Open. Doyle, a naturalized Irish citizen, was vanquished by John McEnroe, a fiery player of Irish descent. (McEnroe was born in Germany to John McEnroe Sr., then a U.S. Air Force officer, with Irish roots.) Since Doyle's run, the Irish have found success in the major tournaments elusive, compelling us to look further in history to identify the Irish heyday in tennis.
At the turn of the 20th century, Irish players of both sexes were prominent in the fledgling sport of lawn tennis, as it was known then, and they were certainly a colorful bunch. Waterford native Vere Goold, later convicted of murder, came to prominence as one of a group of leading Irish tennis players.
Another contemporary of Goold's was Joshua Pim, a scion of a famous Quaker family, who brought the world Pim's fruit drinks and liqueurs. In 1890, Pim, from Bray, County Wicklow, won the doubles title teamed with Frank Stoker. Stoker was the cousin of Dublin-born author Bram Stoker, whose contribution to the world of literature was the iconic horror novel "Dracula. " At the apex of his career, Pim was rated among the best tennis players in the world. 1890 also saw the Irish ladies ascend to the world stage, as Lena Rice won the singles title. The men's title was also won by Kildare's Willoughby Hamilton, who defeated Pim.
Hamilton was another character of the early game of tennis. His graceful, gliding style earned him the nickname "Ghost." He would go on to win the Irish championships, and the Wimbledon mixed doubles, before illness halted his career at its peak.
Goold, Pim, Stoker and Hamilton were just some of the excellent Irish tennis players who made international headlines at the turn of the 20th century. Debate continues as to why Irish players today are not reaching the final stages of the major competitions, a status likely to continue this year, despite this impressive pedigree. WGT
James Doherty is a Waterford-based writer who focuses on the preservation of the history of the Irish worldwide.
This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and Doug Chandler
and produced by Joe Gannon.