Indian Wells 2021: Dan Evans tops Kei Nishikori in three-set crowd-pleaser
Cam Norrie emulates Evans and Andy Murray to score tough opening win
Certainly the highest-ranked British woman at this year’s Indian Wells 1000 had drawn more attention and column inches that any of her compatriots.
After all, teenager Emma Raducanu became the star of the tennis summer with her run to the US Open title via qualifying a month ago. It was just her fourth main-tour tournament, and catapulted her to No22 in the ranks from 150 at the start of the event.
Playing her debut BNP Paribas Open, and her first match since that famous victory, she was unable to replicate that same form in these very different desert conditions. Hardly surprising for a young player of such little experience and with every move around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden under the spotlight.
For Andy Murray, the spotlight ceased to become a problem many years ago: Two Olympic gold medals, three Major titles, 14 Masters titles and 41 weeks at No1 proved that he had ‘been there, done that’. Now in the aftermath of two big hip surgeries, and with a family that burgeoned during the coronavirus lockdown, his work ethic and desire to win were still undiminished.
He may have struggled to notch up the match-wins he would have liked after a series of injuries and a Covid infection earlier this year, but there were signs of the old Murray through the summer, and he got off to a flying start in Indian Wells against the tricky and unconventional play of leftie Adrian Mannarino, winning 6-3, 6-2.
Murray’s second round will test the British favourite rather more, for he faces the brilliant teenager Carlos Alcaraz, seeded 30, up from 115 as recently as the French Open. The young Spaniard went on to win his first title in Umag and make the quarters at the US Open, and will provide a valuable yardstick of Murray’s form and fitness.
But British eyes on opening Saturday in the desert refocused first on the highest ranked British man in the draw, No18 seed Dan Evans, and then No21 seed Cameron Norrie.
Both were playing this year’s Indian Wells at considerably higher ranks than two and a half years ago. Evans back then was at 100, played qualifying, and faced Stan Wawrinka in his opener. Norrie was at 58, and went out in Round 1 to Felix Auger-Aliassime.
For Evans, 2021 had proved to be something of a break-through season for the single-handed 31-year old. He won his first title at the start of the year, reached his first Masters semi in Monte-Carlo—beating Novak Djokovic in the process—and made a fourth-round run at the US Open. It took him to a career-high ranking and an Indian Wells seeding, but he drew the prodigiously talented Kei Nishikori for his opener.
The Japanese man had won their last three matches, including a gripping five-setter at Roland Garros a year ago, and as he continued his comeback from elbow surgery before the pandemic shut-down, he was as dangerous a non-seed as they come.
Evans faced a break point in the fifth game, which Nishikori converted with some crisp baseline strikes and a drop-shot winner. The Briton though hit straight back, using his cross-court slice to a perfect length to earn break point, and this time Nishikori’s drop shot found the net: 3-3.
But now Evans faced 0-40 as a forehand return blistered past him, and while he saved the first point, he could not stave off the next. It was another break, 4-3, but with both covering huge amounts of the violet court in 30-degree heat, Evans pressed again. He could not break, but went for broke on his next service game, changing things up with a serve and volley play.
However, Nishikori’s timing and footwork made winning passes, and Evans faced more break points for the set. He reached deuce with a textbook serve-volley winner, but the game would become a marathon effort of 10 minutes, repeated deuces, and a clutch of set-points for Nishikori.
Evans finally held and forced Nishikori to serve it out, which the former world No4 did in some style, reeling off winners both in the air and from the ground to take it to love, 6-4, after almost an hour of really high-quality tennis.
Evans opened the second set with a quick hold and worked break point, but Nishikori’s pinpoint depth through some long rallies was hard to break down.
Evans had another break chance in the fourth game, and hung his head in despair after a drop-shot winner from the Japanese, following by forehand winners to both corners.
Yet again Evans earned break chances in the sixth game, only to see them batted away, but finally a deft backhand down the line got his reward and a roar of satisfaction: 4-2. He went on to serve out the set, 6-3, with some stylish, energetic play.
The deciding set was nip and tuck in the early stages, but one error too many from Nishikori opened the door a crack, and Evans struck, 4-3.
A fine game from both men had the packed stands cheering almost every point, and with Nishikori also charging the net, there was plenty of variety in all the rallies. Evans stepped up to serve for the match, and facing break point, made the bold choice to come in for the volley winner. He saved another with a pin-point serve. And after two hours 48 minutes, he took the win, 6-4, in what had been a crowd-pleaser of a match.
Things get only tougher: No11 seed Diego Schwartzman is next, having also been taken to three sets, but this win takes Evans within touching distance of the top 20.
However, it was the next man on Court 5 who could see a place at the ATP Finals on the horizon. For Norrie too, 2021 had brought a breakthrough: A first title from five finals leading to a career-high 26, and such had been his consistency through the year that he was an outside contender for a place on plane to Turin in November.
He took on a man familiar from his earlier Challenger days, Tennys Sandgren, an American with a big power game on a good day, but good days had been hard to come by this year: 10 first-round losses, just seven match-wins, and a nagging back problem.
The disparity in their form was writ large early on, with an immediate break, then another, for Norrie, but serving for the set at 5-2, the Briton double faulted to offer up two break points, and overhit a forehand.
All at once, he was serving at 5-4, and again fending off break points as Sandgren began to play full-blooded, free-hitting tennis. Norrie had to knuckle down and play solid defence to stem the tide, and did so, 6-4, after three-quarters of an hour.
Norrie missed a chance to break in the first game of the second set, and more chances in the fifth. Finally he did get the advantage, only to hand it back with some scrappy and uncertain shot-making in the face of power plays from Sandgren. Then just as it seemed destined for a tie-break, the American broke for the set, 7-5, and that despite being unable to sit down at the changes of end because of back pain.
But a third set was a step too far for Sandgren, and Norrie swept through it, 6-0, after an unexpected two and a quarter hours. It had not been pretty in the middle passage of play, but as Norrie afterwards admitted, it is these kind of wins that build up the confidence.
He also admitted that he would now be resting up to prepare for his next opponent, a man like himself who seems to run on ever-ready batteries: No15 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Guido Pella, 7-5, 6-3.
There were also wins for:
Casper Ruud over Roberto Carballes Baena
Frances Tiafoe over Sebastian Korda [No32 seed]
Hubert Hurkacz over Alexei Popyrin
Reilly Opelka over Taro Daniel
Amanda Anisimova over Camila Giorgi
Karolina Pliskova over Magdalena Frech
Anna Kalinskaya over Sara Sorribes Tormo [No28 seed]
Tamara Zidansak over Ana Konjuh
Ons Jabeur over Anastiasija Sevastova
Ajla Tomljanovic over Garbine Muguruza [No5 seed]
Denis Shapovalov over Vasek Pospisil [ret]