Dan Evans pulled off the best victory of his career so far under the unlikeliest of circumstances as he produced a nerveless performance to upset Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-5 on clay and advance to the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters.
Evans had arrived in Monaco widely considered to be one of the weakest clay court players in the top 100, with a 0-7 overall record against top-five opponents. The Briton had lost 10 consecutive main-draw matches on clay dating back to 2017, and he has been so candid about his distaste for clay that when Tim Henman later asked him whether it was his best surface he shot back with a sarcastic question of his own: “Is golf your best sport?”
Yet this week has been a different world from the beginning. In the opening round Evans beat Dusan Lajovic, runner-up of the Monte Carlo tournament in 2019, before defeating the Miami Open champion, Hubert Hurkacz, in straight sets to line up his match against Djokovic. But while he managed to regularly move to the net and impose his brand of tennis against those opponents, he outplayed the world No 1 in a tussle from the baseline.
From the beginning of their third-round match it was clear Djokovic was not entirely himself. He opened with consecutive double faults and two further unforced errors to lose serve. Evans was often the more durable player, working Djokovic with his wicked slice, abrupt injections of pace with his forehand and countless excellent drop shots that either remained low and moved Djokovic off the baseline or died in the dirt for an outright winner.
“My gameplan was to try to bring him forward and get him hitting the ball when it was pretty low in the court, and then go higher with my forehand down the line,” said Evans. “But yeah, it was difficult to get to net so I felt sometimes I did too much running, but that’s the price you’ve got to pay sometimes in those matches.”
Despite how poorly Djokovic played, there were still numerous points when he could have wrestled back control. He fought back to 4-4 from a double break down only for Evans to break back swiftly and close out the set. In the second set Djokovic held a set point on Evans’s serve at 5-4 but Evans rolled through three consecutive games to win the match.
Evans noted afterwards that he found extra motivation from Djokovic’s tardiness. “He kept me waiting at the start of the match in the changing rooms a little bit, it was a little annoying, so I was ready to go from that – that got me a little extra fired up,” the 30-year-old said.
“That’s why we roll the balls out, it’s one against one and you’ve gotta see who wins and that’s what I was telling myself.”
Djokovic’s performance will probably have no relevance to the outcome of future tournaments, but it does reflect a notable trend.
While he has become such an efficient player, improving his serve and shortening points, he is not always as patient as he once was, particularly when less motivated outside the majors. It can leave him more vulnerable on clay courts.
“He was a better player,” Djokovic said. “Just more focused, I guess, and played with a better quality in the decisive moments. To be honest, this has been probably one of the worst matches and performances from my side I can recall in the last years. I don’t want to take anything away from his win, but from my side, I just felt awful on the court overall. Just nothing worked. It’s one of those days.”