When Dan was the man

British star Dan Evans won the 2009 ATP Challenger event by defeating Jan Minar of the Czech Republic in straight sets Picture: TONY PIKE (00656661)

FOR a short time – 2006 to 2010 – Jersey was proud to host a prestigious ATP Challenger event that featured a fair mix of prodigious young talents quickly working their way up the rankings, and journeymen (and women) grinding it out for a little extra in the purse and the hope of breaking through to the main tour.

One such player who was tipped for big success claimed the men’s singles title of the Caversham International at Les Ormes this week 15 years ago. Dan Evans had finished the previous season as the LTA Male Junior Player of the Year and he entered the 2009 tournament as one of four British wildcards for the 16-man event, ranked somewhere in the 400s having only started his professional career the year before. In Jersey he was up against players in the top 250 but the visit to the Island was not an alien experience for the then 18-year-old. He had also entered the 2008 event as a wildcard that was played just five months earlier, getting knocked out in the first round by Dutchman Michael Koning 7-6, 4-6, 6-7. That edition was eventually won by Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, who was back to defend his title as the highest-ranked participant at 128 at the time.

Tennis is one of those sports where prodigious talent rises to the top very quickly and stay there for as long as their body will allow them too. It is also, with the notable exception of generational, next-level superstars such as Federer, Williams, Nadal and Djokovic, where a player’s peak is much earlier in life years compared to most other sports. It, therefore, says much about both Evans and Mannarino, now both in their mid-thirties, that they remain in and around the top 50, where they have been for the best part of the decade, but also that their most sustained success has come in their twilight years, reaching their career highs over the last few months, with Evans up to 21 and 35-year-old Mannarino up to 17 as late as January this year.

Mannarino has been a consistent operator on the tour for most of career, but last year he won three of his five ATP Tour titles. For Evans, the once precocious talent who Andy Murray tipped for the top after his win in Jersey, it has been a more fraught personal journey for a player who quickly developed a reputation for having a poor attitude. Having once received a ban after being photographed at a nightclub mid-tournament, he had his funding discontinued by the LTA after questioning his commitment before hitting an all-time low with a year’s ban after testing positive for cocaine in 2017. There was no denying his talent, though, having been a part of Great Britain’s winning Davis Cup team of 2015, their first title since 1936, and eventually breaking into the top 50 just prior to his suspension. But it wasn’t until 2021 that he won his first ATP Tour title – the Murray River Open in Australia.

It was a long way from his first Challenger title in Jersey, which began by beating fellow British wildcard Colin Fleming in the first round, 6-4, 7-5. He knocked out second seed German Simon Stadler, ranked 300 places higher, in straight sets, 6-1, 6-4, then beat Stephane Robert of France, 6-3, 7-6, to set up a semi-final against Great Britain’s number two, Alex Bogdanovic. Having comprehensively lost the first set 6-1, Evans fought back to take the next two, 7-6, 6-4.

The final between the Brummy and Czech Jan Minar was of “undeniable” quality, “with both men pulling out spectacular winners with astonishing regularity”, wrote the JEP’s Ron Felton. Evans broke Minar’s serve in the eighth “but not before some superb, breathless rallies” and went on to take the first set 6-3. Minar continued to battle hard for every point but Evans’ “greater range of shots and never-say-die approach” shone through and, after two early breaks in the second set, he held out 6-2 to win the Championship and a cheque for 6,250 euros.

“I came for experience – one match at a time – but never expected to win. It’s a real bonus,” said Evans after being presented with the trophy in front of an “appreciative crowd” of over 300.

It completed a British double in the singles, with Katie O’Brien winning the women’s event in somewhat anti-climatic fashion – when leading 7-5, 1-0 in the final, her French opponent, Claire Feuerstein, retired injured. Italy’s Maria-Elena Camerin and Stephanie Foretz won the women’s doubles beating the French pair of Yulia Fedossova and Virginie Pichet 6-4, 6-2 in the final, while the US pairing of Eric Butorac and Travis Rettenmaier beat Britons Fleming and Ken Skupski to win the men’s doubles title in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3. In the same competition, it was another American who turned heads with his use of a customised, perfectly legal, two-handled racket that allowed the ambidextrous player to play forehand off both hands.

Meanwhile, Evans’ win lifted him up 75 places in the rankings and earned the praise of Murray, who had recently broken into the world’s top five, but his words came with a warning Evans did not heed until a lot later in his career.

“Dan’s got a chance to be a good player,” said Murray. “He’s just got to make sure his mind is in the right place and he works hard and focuses. He might get there.”

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