Monte-Carlo Masters 2021: Evans scores biggest career win over No1 Djokovic to reach first Masters QF

Next up for Evans is Goffin; former champs Nadal and Fognini also into QFs

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Corinne Dubreuil for Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters)

All things come to those who wait, and Dan Evans had waited longer than many for the opportunity that awaited him in the third round of this year’s Monte-Carlo Masters.

In late 2019, Evans first became the British No1 ahead of both Andy Murray and Kyle Edmund. He rose to a new high of 33 at the start of 2020, and was then seeded at a Major for the first time at the Australian Open.

Back in Melbourne this year, after the suspension of the tennis tour due to the Covid pandemic, and the 30-year-old Evans won a career-first title to start 2021, the Murray River Open, without dropping a set, and rose inside the top 30.

Now he was demonstrating his improvement across the board on arguably his worst surface, clay. In Monte-Carlo, he had reached the third round of a Masters for the first time, and by scoring his first tour-level victory on the red stuff in four years. What is more, to do so, he beat the 2019 runner-up, Dusan Lajovic, and then the Miami Masters champion Hubert Hurkacz.

The ultimate test for any player, though, is to take on the world No1. Evans had played both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as No1s, but he had never played Novak Djokovic. Now he did have to take on the man who had won more Masters titles than any other player—two of them in Monte-Carlo—and the man who had just claimed the all-time record of weeks at No1, the mighty Serb himself.

It was not the most auspicious start for Evans, a time violation for a ‘start of play’ delay, though perhaps with a wink to that, he revealed after the match that Djokovic had “kept me waiting a little bit in the changing room at the start of the match. That got me a bit extra fired up.”

And Evans very soon remedied the situation to take advantage of sluggish start from the Serb and two double faults, and broke, holding for 2-0.

That was not all: Evans sliced and diced, threw in a couple of drop shots, tried a volley attack, and broke again. The Briton served for a 4-0 lead, and facing break point, he cracked a backhand down the line, and sliced his way to another Djokovic error.

But the world No1 was getting the size of Evans’ game, worked another break chance, and this time converted. One break back, and then a love hold, and he began to warm up, feel the pace of the cooler, heavier court, and swing Evans to and fro.

The Briton missed a few first serves, helping Djokovic to begin using the angles, find the side-lines, and earn more break chances. It would take Evans almost 10 minutes to come through a slew of deuces, and hold off the world’s best for 4-2.

The tennis was a treat to watch, extended rallies bringing the skills of both men into play, a match of tactical smartness and physical resilience, of angle and touch and all kinds of spin. But Djokovic was clearly beginning to up his level, and the shorter man with somewhat less power would have to keep adjusting his shot choices to keep in the race.

Evans attacked the net, but twice hit an overhead wide, then a forehand long for break point. He survived it, but not another, despite benefitting from an ‘in’ call on a ball that was just out. They were all square, 4-4.

A stunning 34-shot rally, with Evans testing and probing from the baseline with cross-court backhands, drew Djokovic in and the Briton passed him with a whip of a backhand. Evans then took full advantage of a second serve from the Serb to break, 5-4.

Djokovic’s error count had climbed to an uncharacteristic 20, but as Evans served for the set at 40-15, Djokovic levelled to deuce with a superb drop shot winner. However, the Briton took his third bite of the cherry for game and set, 6-4. after almost an hour.

Evans tested Djokovic to deuce in the opening game of the second set, but the tables were soon turned when the former champion broke for a 2-0 lead.

Djokovic was now looking the more aggressive player, sticking to the baseline and pushing Evans back, and his deep, pinpoint serving maintained control, 3-0.

But Evans was still running, fighting, thinking, and in the fifth game, a great drop-shot exchange earned him break point, and big forehand winner converted, 3-2.

Evans faced another break point at 3-4 down, only to produce another winning forehand, and then another to the other wing. Both men were playing at a great level, finding the lines, chasing down the angles, throwing in winning drop shots. And it showcased the vast improvement in Evans’ fitness and focus through recent disrupted seasons.

He survived another long test with a forehand sliced winner, 4-4, only to face set point in his next service game. But once more he held, 5-5, and then it was his turn to earn a break chance. Djokovic made a drop shot winner on the first, but the wind got up, and the Serb double faulted. Evans would serve for the match.

Now, though, the Briton was serving into the wind. He got away with a bad call on one serve, but then Djokovic blasted a forehand long, and a final pass from the Evans earned the biggest win of his career, 7-5.

Evans was, in his familiar understated way, delighted with this first win over a No1 and his first Masters quarter-final. He revealed:

“My game plan was to try to bring him forward and have him hit the ball low in the court. It was difficult to get to the net and I felt sometimes I was doing too much running, but that is a price I had to pay. But I also thought I did a good job to get out of my service games. He had so many break points and didn’t take them, so I was a little lucky there.”

He went on to admit:

“He gave away some cheap ones today, which he never normally does. But I’m just really happy.”

Djokovic, too, was keen to point out his own weaknesses:

“Well, congratulations to him. I mean, he deserved to win. He was a better player. Just more focused, I guess, and played with a better quality in the decisive moments.

“To be honest, I mean, this has been probably one of the worst matches and performances from my side I can recall in the last years. I don’t want to take anything away from his win, but from my side, I just felt awful on the court overall. Just nothing worked. It’s one of those days.”

It was a rather harsher assessment of the match than seemed fair: The Briton deployed tactics aimed at drawing errors, breaking the Serb’s usual rhythm, while playing with great variety and accuracy himself. The wind and heavy conditions were testing, but they applied to both men.

However reviewed, though, this was an important and deserved win for Evans, who next plays No11 seed David Goffin, who beat No5 seed Alexander Zverev, 6-4, 7-6(7). Evans beat the Belgian in their only previous match, just over a year ago.

Also in this half, No4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas beat No16 seed Cristian Garin, 6-3, 6-4, to set a quarter-final against unseeded Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who beat Lucas Pouille, 6-2, 7-6(2).

In the bottom half, 11-time champion Rafael Nadal beat Grigor Dimitrov, 6-1, 6-1, in just 55 minutes, while No15 seed and defending champion Fabio Fognini beat Filip Krajinovic, 6-2, 7-6(1).

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