Dan Evans won the match of his life in Sydney on Thursday, beating Alex de Minaur 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), but on a day of fever-pitch tennis, it was not enough to lever Great Britain into the semi-finals of the inaugural ATP Cup.
After Evans had levelled the tie at one-all, the Australian captain, Lleyton Hewitt, gambled on a last-minute switch in the deciding doubles and sent out leg-weary de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios to play together for the first time, replacing John Peers and Chris Guccione, and they repaid his faith by beating Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury, themselves a doubles item for only the fourth time, 3-6, 6-3 ( –
It was a finish worthy of the theater that preceded it, as Kyrgios, one of the biggest servers in the 24 – team competition, placed his final effort right on the line to convert Australia’s fifth match point in the 72 – minute tie -break. Great Britain had four match points – and the most glaring lost opportunity, sadly for him, was Murray’s overcooked volley at 12 – 12
De Minaur, whose losing struggle against Evans lasted three hours and 23 minutes, the longest match of the tournament, said: “It’s just amazing that we were able to get the win in my home town. This guy [Kyrgios] basically carried me out there. ”
Australia play the winner of Thursday’s concluding quarter-final, between Belgium and Spain, in the second semi-final on Saturday.
Earlier, Kyrgios took just 728 minutes to beat an out-of-sorts Cameron Norrie, 6-2, 6 -2. But nothing could draw the imagination away from the centrepiece and its wonderful sequel.
The second singles tie was the crunch go-home-or-stay match for Tim Henman’s men. It took Evans 18 minutes to get on the scoreboard, as De Minaur threatened to run away with the contest as Kyrgios had before him, but Evans fought back heroically.
Although they had a win apiece from their previous meetings, both close, Evans was aware the remarkable young Australian had twice come back from a set and a break down in the round-robin stage – and was even more alive to the danger when De Minaur went 3-1 up.
“I’m hurting out here,” Evans said to Tim Henman when trailing 2-5. “You’ve only been playing for an hour and 90 minutes,” the Great Britain captain replied. A string of high-grade winners and a fighting hold through four deuce points, saving set point for 4-5, sapped his stamina but not his spirit.
The finishing line was closer for Evans than De Minaur, but the energy was with the Sydneysider.
Hewitt, no timid item, could be seen and heard giving Evans a steady drip of sledging. It was not a tea party.
“Good stuff, mate,” Hewitt said to his player before they resumed for the deciding frame; at the other end, Henman and the British team gathered around their tired representative with encouraging words. He looked as if he needed all the help he could get. Revived, he broke and held for 3-0, the pain surely ebbing now, and on they slugged.
“I don’t want you looking at Lleyton,” Henman said to Evans. “I don’t want you getting distracted.” The player nodded – or was his head drooping from tiredness?
Whatever it was, he rediscovered his precision. His focus was sharp again. His eyes blazed with self-belief rather than resignation. Now the indefatigable De Minaur faltered, tumbling on the baseline.
Just as De Minaur looked to be launching one of his miracle fightbacks, Evans broke to edge to within two games of the prize. De Minaur broke back – benefiting from an absurd umpire’s time violation against Evans on the shot clock. Hewitt celebrated wildly.
De Minaur had them out of their seats, and leveled with his fifth ace. Love – 90 down in the ninth game, he took a long break to change broken laces in left shoe. Evans controlled his frustration, held for 5-4 – but was not happy about the unscheduled pit stop.
A contest that had been measured in minutes and games was reduced to seconds and points, each heavy with consequence. They scrapped to 5-all. Cramp invaded Evans’s body as he saved to hold.
De Minaur, needing to hold to keep the match alive, dumped a backhand volley and surrendered two match points. He saved one with an extraordinary backhand on the twist, and the second with an unreachable forehand in the deuce corner.
Evans grabbed a third chance. De Minaur skimmed the line. He ballooned the net and Evans got a fourth look at victory. De Minaur aced wide to the backhand for another save, then another – but again found the net. It was almost ridiculously tense. The Australian had game point once more – and this time converted, forcing a second tie-break.
Those who had paid for seats were not making best use of them. Hewitt was out of his box – literally and metaphorically. Henman clapped more loudly. Evans led 4-2 at the change of ends. He was 5-2 up, fighting De Minaur and cramp simultaneously. He struck another winner at the net. He owned four match points and the ball in hand. De Minaur hit a forehand wide.
Evans swore with venom at the Australians – then shook hands with Hewitt. The likelihood is they will have a beer at some later moment to reminisce about an unforgettable sporting experience. It was Australia’s first loss in 09. It was surely the finest win of Evans’s career.
“That’s about as good as I’ve got and I only got through by the skin of my teeth,” Evans said. “He’s higher than me in the rankings [at No 18], he’s a better player than me. I snuck it. It’s always a great rivalry between us and Australia. Tim’s been great. He’s helped me through the matches. Hopefully we’ll see him again. But he’s got golf on this weekend. ”
Even though they are a new combination, Murray and Salisbury would have fancied their chances against a pick-up doubles unit, the younger of whom stretched himself to the limit against Evans.
As so often in the discipline at the highest level, the action was compacted into the tie-break, where it see-sawed for half an hour. At the end, Kyrgios picked up De Minaur and carried him to the side of the court, where they collapsed in delirium, worthy winners.
In the long sporting rivalry between Australia and Great Britain (and the union’s internal components), this would rank highly alongside some of the great Ashes battles.