ATP Cup 2020: Dan Evans takes thrilling win over de Minaur, but GB edged Australia in tense doubles
Evans is now close to a Grand Slam seeding for first time
Only two of the eight teams to advance to the knock-out stages of the new ATP Cup had done so with a completely clean sheet of wins.
One of them was Spain, who would take on Belgium on Friday. The other was home nation Australia—and they took on Great Britain.
And with the entire tournament set against the devastating backdrop of Australia’s bushfire disaster, the emotional adrenalin whenever the home players took to court was almost palpable. Nick Kyrgios and Alex de Minaur, both packed with talent, always relish playing team tennis for their nation, and current events—with Sydney able to see and smell the smoke from this very venue—only added to the significance to every win.
Stir into the mix John Peers, a former doubles champion at the Australian Open, and here was a truly formidable challenge for Team GB.
That the Brits had lost Andy Murray to an injury he picked up in GB’s impressive run to the semi-finals of the Davis Cup just six weeks ago only added to the scale of the problem. And after the team lost out to Bulgaria in the first round-robin tie a week ago, the task looked close to insurmountable.
But Daniel Evans, playing here close to a career-high No41, proved not only what a talent he possesses but how much work and commitment he has put into this sport since returning from a suspension 18 months ago. In the summer of 2018, the feisty single-hander from Birmingham packed in Challenger after Challenger to rise from a ranking outside the 1,000 to inside 200 in the space of six months.
Last year, the focus and hard work continued to bear fruit, he qualified for the US Open main draw—giving Roger Federer a real test in the second round—and made only his second career final, via qualifying, in Delray Beach.
By the time he got the call to go and train with Federer in Switzerland ahead of the Swiss star’s return to clay for the first time in three years, the Briton was well inside the top 100. And the unlikely duo seemed to hit it off—they would practise more than once at Wimbledon, too—and perhaps more importantly, Evans got a real taste of elite preparation and single-mindedness.
He notched up wins over higher-ranked men, including, perhaps significantly, Alex de Minaur in Montreal, and helped GB to the Davis Cup semis. So when it came to playing team-tennis again, Evans was in his element. After losing to an on-fire Grigor Dimitrov, he beat No11 David Goffin in straight sets and then Radu Albot in just 72 minutes.
With the 52-ranked Cameron Norrie also going 2-1, and the doubles expertise of Joe Salisbury and Jamie Murray, playing together for the first time, holding up their end of the bargain, GB topped Group C.
But since that last and only meeting with de Minaur in Canada last August, the 20-year-old Aussie had also gone on a surge of form and confidence to pick off several big opponents. He won Zhuhai via Andy Murray, Borna Coric, and Roberto Bautista Agut, reached the final in Basel, beat Bautista Agut again in Paris, was runner up at the NextGen Finals, and beat Goffin and Denis Shapovalov in Davis Cup.
Now ranked a career-high 18 and playing before an enthused home crowd, he beat Alexander Zverev and Shapovalov—impressive opposition indeed—to help Australia to this quarter-final.
And the confidence, quality, and fitness of both de Minaur and Evans would be tested to the limit in what may go down as one of the matches of 2020, a 3hr 24min thriller.
It was a must-win match after Kyrgios beat Norrie in short order, 6-2, 6-2, and it would go right to the wire after 251 points: Evans ended with one fewer points than de Minaur, but took the last one to claim victory, 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(2).
He clearly loved every minute of it, too, as he cut a relaxed figure chatting to both his own captain, Tim Henman, and Aussie captain Lleyton Hewitt. He afterwards admitted:
“That’s why I play sport, for occasions like that. I enjoyed it. It hurt a bit, but I enjoyed every minute of it out there. Hopefully everyone in the crowd enjoyed it, as well. I was just proud to put a point on the board for the guys.”
Evans had to come back from a break down in the first set, and went on to edge the first tie-break, but de Minaur held on to his early break in the second set to level things.
Evans seemed to have the initiative in the third with a 3-0 lead, but de Minaur’s speed and grit ensured this was not over yet. The Aussie broke back and the crowd, already raucous in support, upped the volume still further. Could Evans keep his composure and focus against such pressure?
He failed to convert four match points at 6-5, as de Minaur went on to hold serve for a concluding tie-break. But once there, Evans rose to the occasion with some scintillating play, a lob here, a volley winner, and using his signature backhand slice to chip and charge. He earned four more match-points, and this time made no mistake, serving it out, 7-6(2).
Extraordinarily, de Minaur then returned to play doubles with Kyrgios, which turned into another epic of more than an hour and a half that ended in heartbreak for the Britons. Murray and Salisbury lost out to the Aussies, after failing to convert four match points in marathon match tie-break, 3-6, 6-3, 18-16.
So it is Australia that advances to the semis against either Spain or Belgium on Saturday, though one has to wonder how much de Minaur has left in the tank. However, this is the young Australian’s home city, and it has proved to be a winning formula: He earned his first win in 2017, reached his first final in 2018, and won his first title in 2019 at the ATP’s Sydney tournament. Nowhere in the world will he enjoy more support.
Evans will, certainly, be disappointed that GB missed out on the semis by such a small margin, but he must view his own performance with great satisfaction. Indeed he may have done enough in Sydney to earn a seeding at a Major, at the Australian Open, for the first time. He has jumped 11 places this week, and could end his visit to the city at a career-high 32 in the rankings.