First Encounters: Conor Niland and Síne Lambert
"She didn’t have a clue about tennis"
Tennis player and coach Conor Niland and marketing manager Síne Lambert. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Conor Niland is Ireland’s most successful ever professional tennis player. In 2011, he was the first Irish man to play Wimbledon in 31 years; two months later, at the the US Open, he was forced to retire a match due to illness. He retired from his seven-year professional career in 2012 and now coaches full-time with the National Tennis Academy in DCU. Originally from Limerick, he lives in Ballsbridge
Síne and I had seen each other in O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street, maybe a month before we met, but hadn’t talked. A few weeks later I was playing a tournament in Barcelona, lost, flew home on the Sunday morning and got a call from a friend of mine who was up in O’Brien’s to come and join him. When I got there I met Síne – and we just hit it off.
When we first met we both kind of thought it was destiny. There was something there; we’d see each other every time I was home and I was very keen to get back. I had never really gone out with someone for long before – I was so into tennis it was kind of hard to, and I was travelling a huge amount. But you can never predict how things are going to turn out.
For the year or two while I was still playing, Síne was so supportive. The few months after we met were pretty mad but when I came home, we’d meet up. Wimbledon and the US Open happened that summer. She didn’t have a clue about tennis – but when you’re so immersed in tennis it’s nice to get away from it and most of my friends in Limerick, where I grew up, have never picked up a racquet in their lives.
The first trip Síne came on with me was to the US Open, which was a mad couple of weeks: I got to play in a huge stadium, then got ill. Síne and I had only been going out for a couple of months and we were still getting to know each other. She was great: it was a tough tough moment when I got sick; she looked after me as much as she could.
After that summer we were getting serious and it’s grown from there. I had hip problems for the whole of 2011 and into 2012, had to get both hips done. I decided I’d retire and I’ve been coaching for two years now. I’m in charge of under-14s and under-16s and trying to influence them at that young age is really rewarding. I won the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis championship in 1999 when I was under 18: it’s a big deal, it’s like our Wimbledon. Definitely I’d want to introduce my own children to the sport, but I won’t be a tennis dad.
Síne and I have been looking for a house for six months now, we’re exhausted. She’s doing brilliant in her career, is full of energy, enthusiastic about her role there.
Síne’s just really friendly and outgoing, confident and cheerful; we just get on really well and have a lot of fun together.
Síne Lambert works for Irish Distillers, where she is regional manager for Jameson in Europe. At the end of this month she will begin a new job marketing Jameson in the US. She has previously worked and studied in France and Mexico. Originally from Sandycove, Co Dublin, she lives in Ballsbridge
Conor and I met in O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street in April 2011. We had seen each other a few weeks earlier at a mutual friend’s party in O’Brien’s but didn’t get a chance to talk. A couple of weeks later I was in O’Briens again and our friend said, “I have someone I think you’d like to meet”. About an hour later, in walks Conor.
We were introduced, chatted for a couple of hours, decided we were going to meet up again. He was heading off to Florida in a couple of days for a tournament, so before he went off we met up, just the two of us. Something just really clicked.It wasn’t just physical attraction. I could just tell that he was a really nice person; of course he’s driven, he has to be for his sport, but he’s so grounded, so down-to- earth. And he’s really gentle as well. I just knew I’d met someone special. The more we talked and got to know each other, the more we realised we were very much on the same page in our ideas on life, on values.
I have to admit I was clueless about tennis; I’d played in my local club in Sandycove, but all for fun. Early on it became apparent to Conor that I knew very little. On one of our first dates he asked me could I name a few tennis players and all the guys I named were big names from the 1990s. But we clicked and that was it: after one of our dates I just remember thinking, that’s that now. I was always very conscious of the fact that tennis had to be his priority and that he could have been travelling on tour for another three years. I made a very clear decision at the beginning that travelling didn’t matter. In August 2011, we went over to the US Open together. He qualified after three really gruelling matches – what happened after was awful, awful. Conor was going through a huge amount and I think we were very strong for each other emotionally. I knew he was going to be the most important person in my life.
Retiring was a big decision he made with the help of his family – I said, whatever you need to do, you do: this is your career. He was always so supportive of my career. I remember thinking, I’m so glad I met him before he retired, got to see the world of tennis through his eyes.
Conor’s naturally romantic, in subtle ways. It’s not about the grand gestures: he remembers absolutely everything, makes an effort from the smallest to the largest things, and sees that I get a big kick out of it. Anything he knows I like he’ll make an effort to do. He’s quite sentimental too, family’s so important to him and to me. He’s just a really genuine, fun guy and very steady. He is the one.