Doha 2021: Evans beats Chardy under the watchful eye of his next opponent: Federer
Evans: [Roger] looked fit when I practised with him. If he’s fully fit, it’s definitely going to be tough
All eyes, all ears, all anticipation have been firmly focused on one man among the 28 who make up the draw of the delayed ATP250 tournament in Doha this week.
Roger Federer has not played a competitive match for over 400 days, since January in 2020, and during that long layoff, he had two lots of knee surgery, saw his two rivals equal two of his greatest records—Rafael Nadal reaching 20 Majors and Novak Djokovic reached and exceeding 310 weeks at No1—and he passed his 39th birthday.
After 22 years on the pro tour, did Federer really want to come back for more? Judging by the multitude of press interviews over the last few days, there is no doubt.
Where there is doubt is just how well his body will stand up to top-notch competition in a top-notch draw, and there are seven top-20 players in Doha this week, plus a swathe of men ranked in the 30s who will certainly feel that this is their best chance of taking the scalp of the great Swiss.
Yet after bypassing the Australian swing, feeling not quite ready physically nor quite ready for the isolation and quarantine demands still imposed by Australia, the Swiss believes he is ready to give it a try, but with limited expectations.
“I feel like I’m back at a good level right now. The best one? No chance, because I haven’t played any matches so far yet. There are still a lot of doubts flying about. In the morning when I wake up, I feel actually pretty good. I don’t feel like a broken man, and that’s something really positive.
“The pain is completely, completely under control. It’s good, compared to where I was four or five months ago. I’m in such a wonderful position now that I can actually play five days straight to two and a half hours, and that’s something I didn’t expect this time of the year.
“There’s a lot of positives, but I also still understand what’s not going so well yet… quite honestly, I don’t know myself yet [where my fitness is at]… At this moment, let’s see how matches go. Let’s see how training goes with all the top guys… It is still [a matter of] building up to being stronger, better, fitter, faster and all that stuff.”
One man who might have a good idea of just how well Federer is feeling and playing will play the Swiss in his very first match: Dan Evans.
In fact, Evans has grown to know Federer pretty well. He got the call to join Federer as a training partner in the spring of 2019 in Switzerland. Come Wimbledon, it was possible to find Federer and Evans practising on several occasions at Aorangi Park. They sat on the grass at the back of the practice court chatting like old friends.
And who got the call to Dubai as Federer prepped for his return in Doha? Evans. A fortnight or so as practice partners in the former was then followed by a practice session together in Doha.
It was an unlikely scenario a few years ago, when Evans blew hot and cold, a man packed with talent but lacking the application that is needed to really make the top in tennis. But an enforced absence for Evans in 2017, due to the careless use of cocaine, worked wonders. Evans came back with renewed focus, a different work ethic, and he climbed the ranks from outside 1,000 to a present 28. He won his first title in Melbourne in early February.
Perhaps it was that doggedness, as well as the all-court style of play, that attracted the Federer team. But of course, it has worked both ways: Evans too has gained some insight into the Swiss star’s game and fitness.
To earn the chance to play Federer for a fourth time, and the first time at an ATP event rather than a Major, Evans still had to play the in-form Jeremy Chardy, who he beat on the way to that Melbourne title. The Frenchman went on to make the quarters in Rotterdam last week, pushing eventual champion Andrey Rublev to the three-set limit.
It was, then, a tough opening match, and Evans had to fight hard to hold his first serve, nine deuces, six break points, a game of 23 points altogether.
The match was already nearly 20 minutes old as Chardy served at 1-1, 30-30, but two errors brought a break for the Briton, who held more easily, 3-1.
Chardy held off two more break points in the next game, showing off his big forehand and some dexterity in the front of the court to hold. However, Evans was looking confident, nimble, and particularly assured in attacking the net: He held to love, 4-2. Yet he faced another battle in the seventh game, fighting off four more break points.
The Frenchman was deploying some energy-saving play—drop shots, attempted lobs—and he continued to shorten points with volley attacks. It was, indeed, lively and attractive all-court tennis, and the match was already an hour long as Chardy made another long service hold for 5-4. But Evans made no mistake in serving it out, 6-4.
There were very few spectators in the Doha arena, especially for this first match, but one of the courtside boxes did draw the attention of the cameras: Federer and the three members of his support team.
There is little to fill the hours in the quarantine conditions currently imposed on tennis, with players restricted to their accommodation and the tennis site. So with all his media commitments completed through a long Sunday, and only so much practice and conditioning to be done through the long days, Federer could take advantage of plenty of space around the grounds to kick back and soak up the sun.
Of course, there was also the incentive that the winner of this match would be his first opponent.
Come the second set, and on the 14th chance to break, Chardy pulled off a great angled forehand to draw the error, and led 3-1. The court was gradually moving into shadow and the temperature dropping as Federer’s box emptied, but by then, Evans had conceded another break, and Chardy rode his second wind to serve for the set at 5-1. A fluffed volley wasted the first set point, but he converted the second, after an hour and 40 minutes, 6-1.
Evans got back on the board to open the decider, and then pulled off a running forehand winner to break in the second game, roaring in delight as he did so. A flurry of errors, and Evans held to love, 3-0. Meanwhile, Chardy looked troubled by a pulled hamstring, so the Frenchman went for his shots, and that worked for one hold. But Evans served to love for 5-2, and took the win, 6-2, after more than two and a quarter hours.
Now Evans will also be in the spotlight as he puts the returning Federer through his paces. Would it be an advantage to have spent so much time playing with the Swiss? Evans was clear:
“We obviously practised for [the] past two weeks [in Dubai], and I thought he was playing pretty well. We played plenty of sets. It was competitive. But it’s all very different when you get on the match court. It will be a lot different tomorrow.
“It has been nice to see his game. Obviously it does help I have been able to see it, but it’s still going to be a difficult task. He looked fit when I practised with him. If he’s fully fit, it’s definitely going to be tough.”
Evans went on to explain how his own game has improved since he last faced Federer—who, incidentally, has won in Doha three times:
“I’d say I’m definitely a lot better now. I feel more comfortable. In that sense, obviously he’s not played so much, it will be a little different for him tomorrow. Probably my better chance to get some good tennis out there and trouble him… there’s no drama if it goes wrong tomorrow. If I win, it would be great.”
Yes, all eyes, all ears, all anticipation will be firmly focused on one man in Doha—but Evans is certain to make them pay attention to him, too.