Dan Evans lights up the ATP Cup

Dan Evans lights up the ATP Cup

Last night, a Novak Djokovic-inspired Serbia won the inaugural ATP Cup after beating Spain 2-1 in the final in Sydney. It was a thrilling end to a wonderful tournament that delivered passion, flair and star performances throughout. More on the ATP Cup, and Djokovic’s performances, later in this post. But first I want to touch on Dan Evans, who really came of age this week with a couple of eye-catching victories.

The Birmingham-born right-hander has been on the scene for a while now, but for a variety of reasons has never quite managed to consistently produce the results his considerable talent merits. Now 29, he lost his LTA funding twice in the early stages of his career after partying too much and training too little. Coaches, discouraged by his inconsistent performances and wavering commitment, came and went quicker than Pat Rafter’s tenure as world number one. According to Wikipedia, no less than 14 brave men have valiantly tried to keep Evans on the straight and narrow since 2004.

He spent most of his early twenties wandering aimlessly between 150-300 in the rankings, in the middle of that dreaded sporting no-mans land where there is clearly some potential but not enough return on investment to pay the bills. He seriously considered retirement on more than one occasion.

Eventually, however, his abilities began to shine through. In 2016, he reached the third round of the US Open and backed that up a few months later with a fourth-round showing in Melbourne, famously sporting an assortment of gear after his sponsors had dropped him. But in April 2017, disaster struck as Evans tested positive for cocaine after taking a “small amount” of the drug and failing to remove it from his washbag. His “bad-boy” image had reared its ugly head once more. Having just cracked the top 50, he was banned from playing for a year and would have to work his way back up to the top again via the notoriously perilous Challenger circuit. Many thought it would be beyond him.

On the contrary. Since his return to the tour, Evans has been a revelation. He has established himself among the world’s top 50, became the British number one and came to within inches – literally – of winning his first tournament at Delray Beach.

And his performances last week at the ATP Cup suggest he is ready to make up for lost time. After losing a tight three-setter to US Open semifinalist and former world number three Grigor Dimitrov, he cruised past David Goffin and Radu Albot. But it was his performance against Alex de Minaur in the quarter finals that really impressed me. The Australian, on paper the far superior player and backed by vociferous home support, threw everything at Evans in a titanic battle. But the Brit always had an answer, eventually claiming a sensational victory and in doing so proving to the world that he has what it takes to win the big matches against the best players.

I really hope he continues this run, because there is so much to like about the way Evans plays. Blessed with neither height nor power – two key weapons in a modern tennis player’s arsenal – he has to find other, more inventive ways of winning points. With his one-handed backhand, he throws in slices and feints rarely seen since the wooden racquets of the 70s. His forehand is hit hard and with precision, not simply blasted in the “hit and hope” manner so many play with these days. And he is intelligent. He serves and volleys, not on every point, but when the situation requires. He is a throwback to a past generation, his guile the perfect antidote to the bulging biceps and towering giants that dominate today’s game. (And when all else fails, he can also do this, which is simply outrageous.)

“It feels like playing in a mirror,” said once Roger Federer after beating him at the Australian Open last year. High praise indeed, but I can see exactly what he means.

How far can he go? Its difficult to know, but he will start the tournament in Melbourne next week as a seed for the first time in his career, and given that he has just beaten two top-20 players in a row, that should be the minimum target for this year.

Finally, a few words on the ATP Cup as a whole. Its fair to say the tournament, which was met with considerable skepticism when it was added to the calendar, was a resounding success. Due to the time difference, I was only able to catch a handful of games, but each one was thoroughly enjoyable and memorable. The players all played with a passion and intensity that we have become accustomed to seeing only at the Davis Cup. Despite visible clusters of empty seats in the stadiums, even during the final, the atmosphere was electric throughout, which goes to show just how much players value team competition.

Last year I wrote about my concerns in staging the tournament so soon after the newly revamped Davis Cup finals, which I felt would muddle and alienate fans. And while I still feel a merging of the two tournaments would be better in the long run, it is great to see both thriving alongside each other in the meantime.

It was nice, also, to see Djokovic enjoy such strong support in his matches. Despite his remarkable achievements, the Serb has spent his entire career in the shadow of Nadal and Federer, who invariably enjoy the crowd’s backing. I’m not quite sure why there were so many Serbs in Australia, but it was refreshing to see a player who is so often the villain of the piece enjoy some of the adulation his fantastic career deserves.

Right, I’m hungry so I’m going to re-heat some of yesterday’s lasagne. On popular demand, I tried it with pork mince this time, and it wasn’t anywhere near as good. Shame on those who pressured me into that decision. Beef all the way from now on.

Until next time.

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