The mighty Rafael Nadal aside, it is arguable that no-one in the world has played better tennis in the last two months than Dan Evans. The problem for Britain’s current No. 1 (who will continue to occupy that position until Andy Murray fully returns from injury) is that he has played all that superb tennis in a team context, in November at the Davis Cup in Spain and in the last week at the ATP Cup in Australia. Now he must translate all his team heroics into individual achievement on the ATP Tour.
For those of us who remember the decades-long drought in British team tennis, which extended from Great Britain’s losing appearance in the 1978 Davis Cup Final against the USA until the Andy Murray-inspired Davis Cup victory against Belgium in 2015, it is almost inconceivable that Britain should have performed so well in two successive team tournaments, especially when those tournaments have been played so close together. And the fact that GB reached the semi-final of the revamped Davis Cup (losing to hosts and eventual winners Spain) and the quarter-final of the first ever ATP Cup (which they would have won against hosts Australia but for Jamie Murray’s errant shot on the first match-point in the doubles) without Andy Murray is, frankly, little short of miraculous.
In large part, that mini-tennis miracle is down to Dan Evans stepping into Andy Murray’s shoes and playing tennis that the Great Scot himself would have been proud of. Evans played well in Spain in November, but this week in Australia his game has gone up another level again, as proved conclusively by his extraordinary, indeed genuinely epic, victory against Alex de Minaur in more than three hours, which took the quarterfinal to the deciding doubles rubber in the first place.
However, for Great Britain and for Evans the team tennis is now over for the better part of a year, until the second edition of the revamped Davis Cup in Spain (again!) in November. So Evans has to find a way of consistently producing on tour the kind of performances that he has shown in the last few months in the two new men’s team tennis events.
In one sense at least, Evans will personally benefit from his achievements with Team Britain, as the ATP Cup’s USP, certainly in comparison with the Davis Cup, is that it provides successful players with invaluable ranking points at the start of the year, which are all the more invaluable as they are effectively “extra” or “bonus” points, because this is the first edition of the tournament. This will only cause Evans a problem in 12 months’ time when, presumably, he will have to “defend” the ranking points that he has won this year by doing equally well in 2021.
For now, though, Evans has performed so superbly in Australia that there is still an outside chance that his ranking will increase so much that he might even be seeded for the Australian Open. That would have been absolutely inconceivable not so long ago, especially when Evans was serving his year-long ban from tennis for taking cocaine.
It is the memory of that enforced exile from the game that may just explain why Evans seemingly performs way above his usual tour standard in team events. On returning from his ban, he spoke openly, publicly and candidly about the misery that he had endured during the previous 12 months, when he had been unable to compete on tour and had often been unable to motivate himself even to practice and stay in good physical shape for his return. He said that for part of the time he was banned he had been living with his girlfriend in Cheltenham, the charming but rather quiet Gloucestershire town, and while she was at work he had found himself spending large amounts of time on his own, just walking around, and had hated it.
That suggests that Evans might not have the archetypal “individual” or even “loner” mentality required for an individual sport such as tennis and might just be naturally more suited to playing a team sport, such as football. As a result, he might find the level of support and “mateship”, to use an Australian term, on offer in team tennis events suits him far more than the often isolated life of a tennis player on the regular tour.
Fortunately for Evans, for the time being at least it looks as if he has escaped the most isolating parts of the tour, namely the second-tier Challenger or Futures events that he had to begin his comeback on (where there are often more officials and ball-kids watching than actual fans) for the relatively sunlit uplands of the ATP Tour proper.
The challenge now for Evans is to ensure that he never returns to the crippling loneliness that he experienced both during his ban and in the first few months of his comeback from it. His actual talent to do so has never been in doubt. When the great Roger Federer himself not only compares his own playing style to yours but actually invites you to practice with him, there can be no question that you are a singular talent. What Evans must do now, therefore, is to cultivate the self-confidence and sheer mental strength to go with that undoubted talent. And if the events of the last few months in Spain and Australia cannot help him to do that, then surely nothing will.