Montreal Masters 2019: Nadal holds off strong Evans challenge to equal Federer record

Defending champion Nadal must reach final to prevent Federer taking No2 ranking

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Despite being named the Rogers Cup, and Roger Federer having won two titles from six finals at the Canadian Open—played in alternate years in Toronto and Montreal—the mighty Swiss is not the tournament’s most prolific champion.

That honour belongs to world No2 Rafael Nadal, who has won four times across a span of 13 years. And he was back this year where he won the first of those titles, in Montreal in 2005, to defend his Rogers Cup title for the first time.

But as he began his campaign, the only one of the ‘big three’—with Novak Djokovic and Federer—in Montreal, he also had one of the Swiss star’s Masters records in his sights. Nadal already has more Masters titles than any other player, 34 of them, and with an opening match win in Canada, he would equal the Masters match-wins record of Federer, 378.

To do so, Nadal needed to beat Briton Dan Evans in a first ever meeting, and he could not be playing the No52-ranked man from Birmingham in better form.

Evans was ranked 192 at the start of this year, and that was up from no ranking at all in April 2018 when he returned from a one-year ban. For that absence, for recreational drug use, certainly seemed to galvanise the prodigiously talented Briton into renewed dedication and effort.

Evans plied his trade with great success on the Challenger circuit through the rest of 2018, did so again through the first half of 2019, but also worked his way through qualifying at the big tournaments, made the final of Delray Beach—via seven matches—and come the grass of home, won back-to-back Challengers, reached the quarters in Eastbourne, and the third round at Wimbledon.

With another quarter-final in Atlanta, he edged towards the top 50, and after coming through qualifying in Montreal, he won an outstanding Round-1 match against Alex de Minaur to edge nearer 40 than 50. Victory over Nadal would match or exceed his career-high No41.

But what a huge ask for the 5ft 9ins Briton with the one-handed backhand. He took on Rogers Cup’s best who happened also to have more expertise than most in beating the best single-hander in tennis, Federer. The odds, it must be said, favoured the defending champion who had won 34 matches before at this tournament compared with just one by Evans—in the first round here.

But the creative and aggressive tennis that is the hallmark of Evans was on show from the first: a break, two love holds, and he was 3-1 up, and already deploying his serve and volley, and his attacking sliced backhand. He chipped at the Nadal backhand and it worked a treat.

But the weather threatened to interrupt play, and did so earlier than anticipated. The first short break gave Nadal time to think through the Evans problem and solve it, breaking back for 3-3 on resumption. Evans, though, regrouped with another love hold, held off two break points with more net attacks for 5-5, and after another rain delay, took it to a tie-break, with the two players poised at 32-points apiece.

There, Evans got the early jump, 3-1 with a couple of spectacular backhands, and came to the net again for a 5-2 lead. He had the chance to serve out the set at 6-4, but the bullish Nadal resisted, and drew the error from Evans to nab the set, 7-6(6).

The defending champion had the bit between his teeth, was getting the measure of Evans’ style of play, and stole a quick break to start Set 2. But with a 2-0 lead, the rain came again: They would have to kick their heels for more than an hour.

Evans held for 1-2, and faced with another break point in the fifth game, produced a cracking display of net-bound tennis, including a high backhand smash. Two aces, and he held, and promptly turned the heat onto Nadal.

Facing 0-30, the champion of course found his best, serving big, but a couple of uncharacteristic errors from the baseline handed over the break to a fist-pumping Evans, 3-3.

But levelling is never enough against Nadal, and with a break point on the board, the Spaniard resorted to the destructive tactic that so often undermined the Federer backhand, a cross-court pummelling from the most formidable lasso of a forehand in the business. It forced the Evans error and sealed the break.

With two hours on the clock, then, Nadal was left to serve out the match, 6-4, with 32 winners to just 16 errors—a record-equalling 378th win. And while in Montreal, he will surely overtake that Federer statistic: He plays Guido Pella in his next match. He must, however, reach the final come Sunday to prevent Federer taking over his No2 ranking.

From one man who had not won a match at the Rogers Cup until this week to another, and a considerably more illustrious one. The second seed Dominic Thiem had come five times to Canada and five times gone home without a win.

Thiem arrived from a brief return to clay, winning his home Kitzbuhel title, but he also won his first Masters title earlier this year in Indian Wells, beating Federer in the final. Fast forward to Roland Garros, and he notched up a victory over Djokovic, too, and he counted a win over Nadal on clay on his way to the Barcelona title.

The exceptional Austrian, though, faced some big-time opposition if he was to break his Rogers Cup duck, opening against the flamboyant and explosive talent of home boy, Denis Shapovalov.

The match boasted two more single-handers, too, this time a leftie versus Thiem’s right-hander. And while the 20-year-old Canadian had found wins harder to come by this year after breaking the top 20 in April, Montreal was undoubtedly a happy hunting ground, where the teenager beat Nadal on his way to a first Masters semi-final in 2017.

These two had met once before over a year ago on the hard courts of Acapulco, a win to Thiem, but could home support buoy up the young Canadian?

Shapovalov could not convert multiple break chances in first few games, though he had dropped only two points on his own serve as they hit 4-4. Then, at the first time of asking, Thiem did break, and served out the opening set, 6-4.

The Canadian did not make the same mistake in the second, converting his only chance of the set in the sixth game, and serving it out, 6-3, to level after a high-paced hour and a quarter.

By now, the centre court was cranked up in response to the explosive shot-making of their man, but Thiem was proving himself the more experienced and consistent of the two. It was all square until the eighth game, but then the Canadian over-reached himself, double faulted, and then smashed an overhead wildly on break point.

Thiem was left to serve out the match, 6-3, with some quality serving—his first match-win in Canada—and he will next play Marin Cilic, who beat John Millman, 6-3, 6-4.

Evans was not the only Briton in action on this unpredictable day. Kyle Edmund, ranked 33, had come through a very tricky opener against the winner in Washington’s ATP500 on Sunday, Nick Kyrgios 6-3, 6-4, but he now took on the newest addition to the top 10, Daniil Medvedev, winner of the most hardcourt match-wins this season, 21.

And the powerful, rangy tennis of the Russian proved too much. Medvedev was outstanding both in attack and defence, to down the Briton in under an hour, 6-3, 6-0. Medvedev will now meet fellow 23-year-old Cristian Garin, who beat John Isner, 6-3, 6-4.

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