What A Week For Evans In Dubai – And It’s Not Over Yet

Daniel Evans has celebrated three wins in Dubai (photo: DDFT)

DUBAI, February 27, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Daniel Evans doesn’t shy away from a good challenge. This season, especially, the in-form British No. 1 certainly is giving fans value for their money – thanks to his shotmaking variety and aggressive style of play – especially against Top-20 foes.

When the Briton took Centre Court to play sixth seed Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinal round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships Thursday afternoon, the Russian represented the eighth Top-20 competitor Evans has faced in 2020.

After saving three match points against Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the deciding tiebreak a day ago in the second round, the 37th-ranked Evans was eager to reach his fourth career ATP Tour semifinal, having last reached that stage a year ago in Delray Beach.

However, Rublev wouldn’t hear of it and wasn’t ready to give up easily. After all, the 22-year-old Moscow native has reached the quarterfinals in four of his five events this season – en route to winning two titles – and Evans didn’t make it easy on himself, either. Recovering from 1-3 down to win four straight games, he served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and was promptly broken. Then, Evans, 29, wasn’t able to cross the finish line on his first two match-point opportunities. Perhaps, he was a little too eager during the second-set tiebreak as match points for him morphed into set points for Rublev. Finally, after two hours and 11 minutes – filled with plenty of twists and turns and a little heartbreak – Evans prevailed 6-2, 7-6 (9) to reach his first ATP 500 semifinal. It was just the third loss this season for Rublev, whose record fell to 16-3.

Ever the fighter, Evans won with tactical brilliance. He taught Rublev a masterclass in how to play serve and volley tennis, and how to succeed with backhand slice as an ally. As he frustrated Rublev and made the Russian very uncomfortable and awkward on the court, the Birmingham-born Evans earned admiration from the crowd at the Aviation Club with his never-say-die, long and drawn-out victory.

Evans knew he would get his chances

“I made a mess of some of the match points – especially my service game at 5-4 {in the second set}. It may sound like a cliché, but it was like ‘just stay in there’. I knew I would get my chances,” said Evans, who improved to 11-4 with his victory against Rublev and will break into the Top 30 next week. “I really executed very well. I’m happy with how I played.”

Through set points and match points, Evans remained ice cool. It’s in his DNA. He saved eight of 10 break points – including five while serving for the first set at 5-2 – and outpointed Rublev 90-83. Evans hit 28 winners to offset his 25 unforced errors and controlled play at the net by winning 19 of 29 opportunities. His perseverance paid off in the end.

“Obviously, staying calm is the key to everything. You can call me calm and dull and slow, but I know I have to be aggressive with my feet to stay cool as well,” said Evans during his on-court interview. ”It’s difficult, but I’m really happy with the variation. I’m just happy to come through and, you know, recover for tomorrow.”

After playing tough back-to-back three-setters against No. 4 seed Fabio Fognini and Herbert earlier in the week, where he seems at home, Evans was asked after his win against Rublev if he would have anything left in the tank for Friday. “Of course, that’s what we train for,” said Evans. “To last five matches in these {ATP 500} events. So, yeah, I’m ready to go.”

Later in his press conference, Evans admitted: “Just didn’t fancy playing another set. I think that’s what got me through.”

“Tsit-Tsit-Tsitsipas” cheers lift Greek hero

When 2019 finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas unexpectedly broke his opponent Jan-Lennard Struff’s serve to go ahead 5-4 in the critical ninth game of the deciding set, the rising Greek star broke more than the German’s spirit. It prompted Struff to break his tennis racquet out of frustration as he headed toward his chair during the final changeover of their two hour and 22 minute quarterfinal match.

Looking back on this highly entertaining affair, it’s hard to fathom that Stuff could hit 41 winners, including 10 service aces, and lose. But that’s happened as the match got away from him at the end. It was a startling contrast to Struff’s second-round match against Nikoloz Basilashvili on Wednesday, when the German lost only one game and was on court for a paltry 39 minutes. This time there was a serious battle from first ball to last that delighted the Centre Court crowd.

Full of energy and exhibiting a full array of skills, Tsitsipas fired seven aces, hit 31 winners and won 11 more points on his return than Struff to earn a come-from-behind 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win in their fourth career meeting to move into Friday’s semifinal round for the second year in a row. The second seed saved six of seven break points from the No. 34 Struff and won match point on his first opportunity by firing a serve up the ‘T’ that Struff barely got his new racquet on. Ultimately, Tsitsipas found a way to his seventh straight win.

Afterward, the World No. 6 Tsitsipas celebrated on court with a big smile on his face, dancing around to the cheers of “Tsit-Tsit-Tsitsipas.” He – not Struff – got to sign the camera lens and stand for a post-match interview, and ultimately play on another day in Dubai. It was at this same tournament a year ago that Tsitsipas broke into the ATP Top 10 and, since then, he’s garnered plenty of fan support wherever he competes.

“I’m trying to find a name for all of my supporters. Maybe, ‘Back the Greek’?,” Tsitsipas said with a hint of laughter during his on-court interview. “We should create a hashtag and name for all my family. …

“I had to give it my all out there and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Tsitsipas, who will face Evans for the first time on Friday afternoon. “I’m so proud of myself today. I fought, I suffered on the court. That’s something I’m really happy and proud that I managed to keep that mindset – played point by point – and managed to get the break at the end, which was such a big relief. I took my opportunities when I had them.”

During his seven-match winning streak, Tsitsipas has won an incredible 14 of his last 15 sets. Meanwhile, the quarterfinal loss was Struff’s 13th in 20 career ATP Tour-level last eight appearances. However, the Greek admitted that after repeating his championship run at Marseille on Sunday, making another run at Dubai this week has been physically challenging to him.

“Today, I felt a little bit tired. I won’t lie. I knew this match was important for me,” he said. “So, I tried to hide that as much as possible. I’m going to try to get a good rehabilitation before my match tomorrow – a good massage and treatment _ which is important for my body to come back strong. I’m going to try to play at the same tempo, maybe even raise my tennis and play better.”

Djokovic improves to 16-0 

World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic reached his ninth Dubai semifinal in 11 appearances with a outstanding 6-2, 6-2 win over seventh seed Karen Khachanov of Russia that lasted just 64 minutes. The four-time Dubai champion, who was in control of his quarterfinal match from start to finish, hit 19 winners and committed just 11 unforced errors. He dropped only three points on his first serve while winning with an overall 71 percent efficiency on his serve. Djokovic outpointed Khachanov 60-34.

Playing both solidly and confidently all week – and enjoying his status as a prime-time fixture of the night sessions at the Aviation Club – Djokovic has made quick work of his three opponents in Dubai without dropping a single set. The Serbian opened with one-hour win over Malek Jaziri and followed it up last night with a 59-minute victory against Philipp Kohlschreiber. Total court time: three hours and three minutes.

“I’m definitely feeling well and playing well,” Djokovic said during his on-court interview after his victory. “I like playing night sessions. The conditions are quite different than during the day. … 

“It was a tough match for Karen and I think he can do much better than he has done tonight. It wasn’t his day. On my side, I think I played a solid match.“

Djokovic’s latest night-time victory improved his win-loss record to 16-0 this season. He’s on a 19-match winning streak dating back to last November’s Davis Cup Finals. By reaching the Dubai semifinals, it means Djokovic will remain No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings next week.

When Djokovic was asked if he’s able to appreciate his performance during his winning streak – or if he’s too focused to enjoy it – he gave careful thought to the interviewer’s question before articulating his answer: “Well, being focused is necessary, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you’re focused that you’re not enjoying it. Obviously, I’m trying to do what I need to do on the court and kind of be present and focused on executing the game plan and shots in the best possible way. At the same time, I enjoy competing; I enjoy being in Dubai.“

Monfils next for Djokovic

France’s Gaël Monfils extended his career-best winning streak to 12 with his 6-3, 6-3 victory over friend and countryman Richard Gasquet, reaching the semifinals for a third consecutive tournament and second straight in Dubai. The evening’s last match lasted just 73 minutes, and this third seed Monfils and Gasquet concluded it with compassionate hugs and kisses at the net.

Monfils called his effort against the No. 56 Gasquet “very solid.” He hit eight aces and won points consistently on both his first and second serves. His stylish but aggressive all-court play resulted in 19 break-point opportunities against Gasquet and he cashed in on four of them. Monfils outpointed Gasquet 71-54.

After losing his opening set in his second-round match in Montpellier three weeks ago, Monfils has now won 24 consecutive sets. Friday evening, he’ll take an 0-16 career head-to-head into Friday’s semifinal against top seed Novak Djokovic. While he had no predictions during his post-match interview on court with Marcus Buckland, suggesting “I don’t know what the plan will be. I had 16 plans already and they all failed,” Monfils did say: “I try to be good every day. I try to make sure I’m fighting.”

Around the Aviation Club

• Only one seeded doubles team remains following the completion of Thursday’s quarterfinals. That’s No. 4 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Oliver Marach of Austria, who beat Wesley Koolhof from the Netherlands and Nikola Mektic of Croatia, 7-5, 6-4.

Klaasen and Marach will next face qualifiers Henri Kontinen of Finland and Jan-Lennard Struff from Germany, who advanced over wild cards Matthew Ebden of Australia and Leander Paes of India, 6-3, 6-3.

The other semifinal will be contested by John Peers of Australia and Michael Venus from New Zealand against Jurgen Melzer from Austria and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France, who defeated Germany’s No. 3 seeds Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, 6-4, 7-6 (1). Already, the No. 1 seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury from Great Britain were eliminated by Peers and Venus on Wednesday.

• Friday’s order of play on Centre Court starts with the first doubles match (Peers/Venus vs. Melzer/Roger-Vasselin) at 2:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. GMT) followed not before 5 p.m. (1 p.m. GMT) by the first singles match (Daniel Evans vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas). Then, not before 7 p.m. (3 p.m. GMT), it’s the second singles match (Novak Djokovic vs. Gaël Monfils) followed by the second doubles match (Klaasen/Marach vs. Kontinen/Struff).

What they’re saying

• Andrey Rublev, a two-time titlist on the ATP Tour this year, on how to improve as a player: “What I need to be let’s say better play, to be maybe Top 10, there is so many things I still need to improve. I need to be more strong mentally because I think out of Top 20 guys I’m one of the weakest mentally. Basically, also there is so many things I can improve: my return, my serve, even physical-wise the way I move, the way I hit the ball. There are things I still can improve.”

• Stefanos Tsitsipas on Daniel Evans, his semifinal opponent: “He’s an old classic, one-hand backhand; he slices a lot. He has done very well the last couple of months and has progressed. For sure, it’s going to be a difficult match; it won’t be an easy match. He’s been doing well, beating quality opponents. I’m going to have to be very concentrated on what he has to present out there.”

By the numbers

From 2009-19, Daniel Evans compiled a 5-20 win-loss record against Top 20 players. This year, Evans is 5-3.