As Dan Evans prepared for his first full season as a top-100 player in 2017, he decided with his coach that his goal for the year would be to win a first career title. For a while such a feat seemed quite likely: he started the year with a final before waltzing into the second week of the Australian Open. In April, shortly after arriving at his career-high ranking of 41, he tested positive for cocaine. In the blink of an eye, those hopes turned to dust.
Four years on, Evans has returned to finally clinch the goal. On the eve of the first grand slam of the year, he won his maiden ATP singles title on Sunday at the Murray River Open in Melbourne, defeating Félix Auger-Aliassime of Canada 6-2 6-3.
Evans did not drop a set in his five matches of the week and he was constantly reminding opponents of the threat he presents. Evans is 5ft 9in and no intimidating physical specimen, but his game overflows with craft and guile. He neutralises opponents with his relentless backhand slice, slick forays to his net and his hustle, keeping them off balance and unsure what is coming next. In an era of men’s tennis where solid baseline play is the general standard, he has navigated his own path to the top.
Auger-Aliassime’s reaction was a further illustration of the challenge Evans presents. The Canadian is one of the great talents of his young generation, who rose into the top 20 as a teenager. But despite the great achievement of reaching seven ATP finals at the age of 20, he has lost them all without clinching a single set. Most of those have been excruciating to watch, Auger-Aliassime overcome with tension and nerves.
In Melbourne his fear of Evans’ defensive capabilities meant he aimed closer to the lines, hitting himself out of the match. When he moved to the net he would feed Evans’ forehand due to fear of the Briton’s cutting low slice. Each time Evans happily slotted a passing shot with his favoured forehand.
At 30 years old, Evans is playing the best tennis of his career and fulfilling the potential that has been well known since he was a top-10 junior player. Over the years Evans has shown flashes of his ability against quality opponents but he lacked discipline, carrying the reputation of someone who did not do the required work. His sloppy, unprofessional behaviour met true consequences four years ago.
As much as he deserved condemnation for nearly messing up his career, his swift and quiet recent rise up the rankings is deeply impressive. Within a year of his return in 2019 he had dominated ATP challengers and returned to the top 100. Over the past 13 months he has reached four ATP semi-finals and on Monday he will have a new career high ranking of 26.
Evans’ victory is a particular reflection of his ability since it was achieved without the help of a coach. After a “difficult” coaching trial during the Australian Open quarantine, he is in Melbourne with only a friend and his girlfriend. The remaining question is whether he can bring this form to the Masters 1000 and grand slam events.
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There is a clear divide between Evans’ performances at the lower events and on the big stages, where the real points and money is at stake. Since the beginning of 2020, Evans is 21-7 at ATP Cup, 500 and 250 events off clay, with eight top 20 wins. During the same period, he was 3-4 at Masters 1000s and grand slams off clay, with two second-round losses and a first-round defeat at all last year’s grand slams.
Evans said that his issues on the big stages were rooted in his competing the week before grand slams and then paying the physical price during them. If he can unlock his game on the big stage, the top 20 is in view. On Tuesday he will face his compatriot Cameron Norrie in the opening round of the Australian Open. He is seeded to reach Rafael Nadal, who is hampered by a back injury, in the third round. This seems to be as good as any time to show what he can do.