It was late last year when Dan Evans was first asked what it felt like to be Britain’s No.1 male tennis player, having replaced Kyle Edmund as the highest-ranked British man in the ATP rankings. With typical candour, Evans replied, “I don’t look at myself as British number one. I think Andy [Murray] is British number one, and then there’s me, Cameron [Norrie] and Kyle [Edmund] behind him.” Although it was natural that Evans would doff his cap, as it were, to the only British man in the last three-quarters of a century to win a Major, there is now no denying that he is currently the best British man – indeed, given Johanna Konta’s current travails, probably the best British player of either gender – on Tour.
Evans’s comeback from his year-long ban for taking cocaine has been well-documented, but it is no less stunning for that. Having been completely unranked in April 2018, when he finally completed that ban, he has risen over the next 22 months to his current lofty height of being World No.33. Indeed, given his current superb run at the Rotterdam Open, which has taken him to the quarterfinals and may yet take him further, he is likely to rise even higher before February is out.
Evans had a steadily impressive 2019, slowly rising back up the rankings to a position more in keeping with his undoubted natural talent, which is such that Roger Federer himself has remarked that playing the likeable Brummie is like “looking in the mirror”. However, Evans’s season and with it his career really caught fire at the end of the year, not so much on the ATP or Challenger Tours but in the team tennis events that ended the 2019 season and began the 2020 season.
First, in the Davis Cup in Spain in November, Evans was absolutely at the forefront of the Team GB effort that took them all the way to the semi-finals, where they eventually lost to the hosts and eventual champions, Spain. Then, lest that be considered just a fluke or a one-off, Evans played even more brilliantly in Australia at the start of the year, defeating both Belgium’s David Goffin and Australia’s Alex de Minaur (both of whom are ranked far more highly than him) as the British team came within a shanked Jamie Murray forehand of making the semi-finals of the ATP Cup.
The challenge for Evans after those two stellar weeks was to translate his team heroics into individual achievement on the ATP Tour, and he has undoubtedly done that. Although he went out of the Australian Open in the first round, that was only after doing exceedingly well in some of the warm-up tournaments, to the extent that he was arguably mentally and physically spent by the time he finally arrived in Melbourne. And even more impressively, in Holland’s great port city this week, when the ATP Tour arguably starts again in earnest after all the hullabaloo of the year’s first Major, he has exceeded his performances in the Antipodes.
First, he defeated Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets in the first round, which was a comprehensive defeat of one of the Tour’s doughtiest performers. Then, in the second round he defeated one of the best and most in-form players in the world, Karen Khachanov, who had been in the world’s Top 10 as recently as last October. Evans lost the first set and appeared destined for a relatively meek and disappointing defeat. Instead, he rallied superbly (in both senses) and eventually beat the tall and powerful Russian 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Later tonight, Evans will face France’s Gael Monfils in the last eight in Rotterdam. Monfils is even more in-form than Khachanov was, having won last week in Montpellier. In addition, he is the defending champion in Rotterdam, a venue and hardcourt that clearly suits his mercurial style. However, Monfils’s endeavours in Montpellier were such that he may just be feeling a little weary now. In his second round match in Rotterdam against Gilles Simon, he was literally sucking in air by the lungful on occasions, as he struggled to put away his compatriot, which he eventually managed in three sets. Consequently, if Evans can keep Monfils moving by staying in long rallies, he will have a genuine chance of reaching the last four in Rotterdam.
Nevertheless, regardless of how he does for the rest of the week in Holland, Evans finally appears to be on a one-way upwards trajectory, which, given all the ups and downs and periods of inconsistency in his career, is a triumph in itself. Indeed, pretty soon he may have to deal with the best problems that anyone can have, namely the problems that success brings.
Although Evans continues to regard himself as effectively the temporary British No.1, holding the position only for as long as it takes Andy Murray to return to the Tour full-time, given Murray’s continuing lack of peak fitness (only this week it was announced that he is extremely unlikely to participate in either of the “Sunshine Double” events in Indian Wells or Miami), there is every chance that Evans will continue to be the highest-ranked British man for a few months yet. If that is the case, then as the British No.1 he will have the right to compete for a place at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
However, notwithstanding the attraction of the second greatest sporting event on Earth (after the World Cup), Evans has already intimated that he may choose not to go to Japan and will instead focus on the North American hardcourt summer. As Barry Cowan, the former British pro and current Amazon Prime commentator, put it this week, while Evans is unlikely to win a medal at the Olympics, where Roger Federer for one will be desperate to win the Singles title, there is every chance that sustained success in Canada and the US could catapult him into the world’s top 20 by the time the US Open begins at the end of August. If that is the case, a good seeding and draw in New York could see Evans finally making the deep run into the second week of a Slam that, based purely on his natural tennis ability, he is eminently capable of.
However, looking even further ahead there is arguably an even greater prize on offer for the newly rejuvenated Evans and the tennis nation that he represents. At least for this year and next, until the necessary rationalisation of the Tour schedule happens, there will be another Davis Cup to end 2020 and another ATP Cup to begin 2021. If (and for now it remains a big if) Andy Murray can regain full fitness and form, then the permanent British No.1, in Dan Evans’s eyes, and the current British No.1, in the eyes of the rest of the world, could jointly spearhead a British attack on the two premier men’s team tennis tournaments. And if they could somehow win one of them, that would not only provide Evans with probably the crowning glory of his own career but it would give Andy Murray himself arguably the best way to bow out of professional tennis after his own stellar career.