‘Homecoming’ For Notre Dame Irish In Dublin

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To digress from tennis briefly, the great US college rivals, Notre Dame (known as the ‘Fighting Irish’ and based in South Bend, Indiana) and Navy (based at the US Naval Academy in Anapolis, Maryland) opted this season to play their opening match instead of on US soil, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. As part of the exercise, thousands of fans from both sides descended on Dublin (and its many pubs) to add a boost to a city in the midst of economic austerity.

The links between Ireland and Notre Dame are strong and long-standing and a series of events were built around the football match to celebrate the weekend. One of these was a tennis encounter between the students of Notre Dame and the famous Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club on the Friday before the football game. Ties between the two clubs have been strong, particularly in recent years which have seen several top young Irish players attend and forge their careers at Notre Dame.

Fitzwilliam, based in the leafy, prosperous suburbs of Dublin’s southside was founded in 1877, in the same year as the first Championships were played at Wimbledon. Up to the early 1970’s, it could attract the best players in the world to its annual tournament held in the week following the Wimbledon fortnight. Unlike Wimbledon, Fitzwilliam has long ago abandoned its grass courts and now uses a fast, sandy synthetic surface which proved a challenge last weekend to the Notre Dame students more used to the slow hard courts of the American Mid-West.

The day started rather ominously with a steady, soft drizzle descending on the city, suggesting a possible wet afternoon. Fortunately, the ‘cavalry arrived’ in the form of a totally dry (if slightly windy) afternoon to make for fairly benign playing conditions.

The match began around 2:30 pm. Fitzwilliam was captained by No. 3 Barry King, while Notre Dame was co-captained by No. 1 Greg Andews and No. 2 Blas Moros.

The first singles saw the young Greg Andrews of Notre Dame pitted against former Irish No. 1, Conor Niland. Despite the eventual 6-3,6-0 scoreline in Niland’s favour, Andrews put up a truly brave fight. Niland’s experience and maturity prevailed in the end, but the victor himself was highly complimentary of his young Notre Dame opponent afterwards. Niland had himself gone through the US collegiate system, having played for the University of California at Berkeley in his day, rising to the top of the Irish game and becoming a stalwart of Ireland’s Davis Cup team in recent years. Many will also remember his two Grand Slam appearances in 2011 at Wimbledon and the US Open, in particular his brave encounter with Novak Djokovic in the first round of the latter. Recently retired and now coaching, he played with a zeal and power rarely seen among retired people! Greg Andrews spent part of his growing-up years outside the US where he developed his tennis skills. With an explosive forehand, he is expected to continue to be a potent force on the US collegiate scene. He achieved some compensation for his singles defeat by, along with Spenser Talmadge, beating Niland and his partner, James Cluskey in three tightly-fought sets in the ensuing doubles.

Fitzwilliam’s two ex-Notre Dame players, Barry King and Niall Fitzgerald, both won their singles encounters against less experienced opposition in the shape of Billy Pecor and Wyatt McCoy respectively. Both victors were laudatory, however, about the performances of their American opponents. King acted as captain of the Fitzwilliam side and along with Fitzwilliam’s Director of Tennis, Jimmy McDonagh, was instrumental in putting together the event. The tall ex-Gonzaga player showed all his serving prowess on his road to victory in straight sets against Pecor. Niall Fitzgerald graduated earlier this year from Notre Dame and is now studying at Tulane University in New Orleans (I’m told he made a timely departure during the recent hurricane!) With two very supportive parents behind him, he is sure to go a long way.

Age and experience (as well as home advantage) prevailing, Fitzwilliam took a 6-2 lead at the end of the singles’. Notre Dame won one of the four doubles’ matches, with Andrews and Talmadge’s three set win over Niland and Cluskey.

Impressively, the loyalty and solidarity of the Notre Dame ‘family brand’ was everywhere to be seen at the event, exemplified by the ubiquitous ‘ND’ logo. At the Irish end, the event was promoted well through the efforts of Will Flynn of marketing firm, Talentbase and the warm hospitality of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club. To highlight further Notre Dame’s Irish connections, an interesting touch was the Notre Dame team’s green, white and orange wristbands for the occasion. Added to their all green tracksuits, they were more Irish than the Irish themselves!

The final result of the match was 9-3 in Fitzwilliam’s favour, but the result was less important than the fun experiences, the friendships forged and the memories to look back on. It got me thinking of my own albeit minor associations with Notre Dame, having visited the South Bend campus as far back as 1981 when my cousin attended its sister college, St. Mary’s, just across the road from Notre Dame- thus marking my own five degrees of separation from Notre Dame!

Incidentally, white smoke from the Aviva Stadium appeared the following day indicating that the real business of the weekend was concluded with Notre Dame beating Navy 50-10 in the football – any other result would have been unthinkable to the loyal Notre Dame following.

Long may these kinds of events continue for the competitive, social and economic benefits they provide – friendships forged and good memories to look back on. Dubliners revel in a party and many thousands of Americans (Notre Dame and Navy fans alike) left Irish shores, I’m sure, with some memorable experiences, if not a few sore heads the morning after!

For any feedback to this article, please e-mail Paul McElhinney directly at mcelhinneypaul@eircom.net

Paul McElhinney

2 September 2012

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