European Open 2020: Rising star Ugo Humbert denies Dan Evans in Antwerp marathon

Evans had four match points in second-set tie-break, in pursuit third tour final

Dan Evans
Dan Evans (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

Antwerp has been a successful tournament for British players in recent years.

Things looked very different for Kyle Edmund in 2018 when he won his first career title in the Belgian city to take him to a career high No14 from a rank of 50. On the way, he had reached his first Major semi-final in Australia, reached the final in Marrakech, and notched up strong runs in Beijing and Shanghai.

But Edmund went on to struggle with a knee injury and lost opening matches in 14 tournaments last year to plummet to 75 after his first-round loss in Antwerp. And following the post-coronavirus resumption of tennis in August this year, he won just one match in five events.

The picture for Andy Murray since he won in Antwerp last year has been just as unpredictable. His triumph exactly a year ago was the culmination of a traumatic season that began with what might have been career-ending hip surgery. But he followed his comeback doubles victory at Queen’s with his first singles title—indeed his first final—in two and a half years. He was the lowest-ranked champion of the season, at 243.

And while 2020 has not been kind to anyone, it threw another spanner in the works for Murray with another hip-pelvis problem at the start of the year, which has now resulted in two straight opening losses and his withdrawal from this week’s Cologne Championships. He may be back before the end of the season—but he may not.

So British fans have this year thrown their support behind their new top-ranked man, Dan Evans, whose enviable talent has, in the past, failed to translate into match-wins. But in the last couple of years, that has changed, and a fitter, more focused player has emerged to overtake his compatriots and break the top 30.

Twice a tour finalist, the winning trophy has eluded the 30-year-old Evans, but he continued to cut through high-ranked opposition in this depleted season: a 7-6 a record over top-20 men, including one of the outstanding performers of the year, Andrey Rublev, plus two victories over the towering Russian, Karen Khachanov—most recently to reach the semis in Antwerp this weekend.

Could he put aside the ill fortune of tough opening draws in his last three events—Stefanos Tsitsipas, Kei Nishikori, and Stan Wawrinka—and reach his third final?

Could he even make it three British champions in a row in Belgium?

He had to take on Ugo Humbert, one of the fastest-rising young players of the season. Still only 22, he began the year with his first title in Auckland and reached a career-high 38 last month. Along the way, he scored four top-20 wins, and then another this week over No15 Pablo Carreno Busta. So the left-handed Frenchman would be a challenge.

So it proved, even in the subdued cavern of a vast Antwerp arena devoid, for the first time this week, of spectators: Such has been the impact of coronavirus infection rates across Belgium.

Evans had a break chance in the first game, but Humbert showed what he can produce in the second, with two straight forehand winners down the line. Evans resisted, and aced to hold, and then drew errors from the Frenchman to work three more break chances.

Humbert saved them with his big leftie serve and follow-up winner, but come the fourth break chance, Evans chipped back, and finished with a forehand to convert, 2-1. However, the depth and pace of the Humbert forehand got an immediate break back.

By the fifth game, the rallies were growing longer and more intense, each probing both wings, but again Evans edged a break in a gruelling fifth game of multiple deuces, 3-2. They were already into the 40th minute, and this time, Evans held. That was enough to earn this tightly fought set, 6-4, after well over an hour.

Humbert was agitated by a close call in the last game, on a court that—unusually in recent months—was not equipped with Hawkeye technology. Players have grown used to electronic checking of close calls—have even adapted to technology replacing line judges altogether. So the absence of any checking mechanism has brought arguments aplenty this week.

Evans for his part kept out of the debate, but he looked exhausted. It had taken two hours 40 minutes to get through three physical sets against Khachanov fewer than 24 hours before: Was he starting to feel the demands of this punishing match in his legs.

Certainly Humbert raced to a quick lead in the second set, 3-0, and some nimble net play earned him another two break points. But Evans found his second wind, and battled through another long game to break in the fifth game, 2-3.

It was highly competitive, high quality tennis, with both men looking to mix things up and take the initiative, and it headed to a tie-break with nothing to choose between them. There, Evans got the first advantage, 4-2, and then had three match-points on serve, 6-3. But he could not convert, nor a fourth chance after Humbert fired off a stunning forehand pass. The Frenchman went on to serve it out, 7-6(7).

They headed into the deciding set separated by just one point, 85-84 to Humbert, after more than two and a quarter hours, and the Frenchman continued to play freely and creatively for a quick break. He almost broke again, but Evans dug in to fight off three more break points, 2-3, and then worked two chances of his own in the eighth game. But Humbert is a quality package, bold enough to come to the net, yet able to pass when Evans came forward.

Evans held with some great serve-and-volley plays but now he had to break to save the match, and though he had an opening, Humbert was outstanding in closing it out, after three and a quarter hours, 6-4.

Evans will rue those four missed match points, and his chance of a shot at his first title. But there is no getting away from the fact that the young Humbert is a huge prospect for the coming season—and maybe even for the title this week.

His chances of that will be in the hands of either No8 seed Alex de Minaur or No4 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who contest the second semi-final.

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