Over the last few years, the very best he has ever produced in his career, Dan Evans has grown accustomed to the sensation of being the last British man standing in any given tournament. Plenty of times he has soared, but on Saturday evening his game crumbled before the John Cain Arena crowd.
Evans’s Australian Open ended in brutal fashion at the hands of an efficient and mature Felix Auger-Aliassime. The ninth seed withstood early pressure from Evans and then picked him apart by the end, winning 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 to reach the fourth round at the tournament for the first time.
Afterwards, Evans noted the quality of Auger-Aliassime’s play but he was, as ever, honest in his assessment of his performance. “I panicked on the court,” Evans said. “It was total. I missed my chance and I panicked a bit and that happens in tennis. I’m not going to sit here and say he was too good. I panicked and I felt that.”
There was reason for Evans to believe that he could engineer a better ending. He has started the year strongly, winning his first five matches across the ATP Cup and a Sydney semi-final run. When he and Auger-Aliassime met in the final of the Murray River Open played at Melbourne Park last year, Evans steamrolled Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-3.
After his easy first-round win over David Goffin, Evans’ second-round opponent, Arthur Rinderknech, withdrew on the morning of their match. Evans initially thought it was a great slice of luck but the break to his rhythm ultimately worked against him, robbing him of his rhythm and leaving him with extra time to overthink his third-round match. He had never experienced this situation in a major.
“I’m not making excuses but it wasn’t easy to have a walkover and I sort of lost my momentum a little bit and I never had that before, two days off,” he said. “It was difficult. I thought about the match quite a lot and probably overthought it. And to be honest, he was way better than me as well. But I think I didn’t get my game on court.”
The first set played out to an unusual soundtrack, a concert across the Melbourne Park grounds, with the off-pitch belts of a cover singer botching the Beatles and Elton John songs. “I don’t know what that was, but actually, they should have kept it on,” said Evans afterwards, smiling. “I played better with it on. No, It was probably the best part of the match, listening to that, I think Rocket Man by Elton John.”
In the early stages, Evans appeared to have settled well. He attempted to pin Auger-Aliassime in his backhand corner with his backhand slice, complicating the Canadian’s attempts to dominate with his inside-out forehand while looking to expose Auger-Aliassime’s impatience. He was initially successful, yielding early break points at both 2-2 and 4-4.
But the 21-year-old is a different player to the youngster who froze in their final a year ago. He is now consistently making deep runs in big events, having reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals and US Open semi-finals in his most recent majors. His experience is growing and he sits at a career high of No 9 after leading Canada to victory in the ATP Cup. “I think I’m just more relaxed and more composed and have better self-confidence that I can go into second week, I can go into quarters or more,” he said.
Under pressure in the first set, Auger-Aliassime served extremely well and directed his forehand with clarity to twice hold serve from break point down. Then, at 5-4, Auger-Aliassime landed returns, he demonstrated his improved shot tolerance by grinding out errors from the Briton and reached set point a 30-40. Evans responded by dumping a routine forehand drive volley into the net. He then double-faulted twice in his opening service game of the second set and the momentum definitively shifted as Auger-Aliassime ended the match with 14 of the final 16 games.
Despite the frustration, Evans closed off his day by stressing the positives before a long season to come. “I started the year well, I’ve had some good wins, had real momentum going into the match and one match is one match I got to forget about,” he said. “It would be another mistake if I keep worrying about that match what’s just happened, so it’s just time to park it and move on.”
Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev, the second seed, outclassed Botic van de Zandschlp 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the fourth round. Stefanos Tsitsipas later survived the talents of Benoît Paire, advancing 6-3, 7-5, 6-7(2), 6-4.