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 1-1, the Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt gambled on a last-minute switch in the deciding doubles and sent out De Minaur and Nick Kyrgios to play together for the first time, replacing John Peers and Chris Guccione.They repaid his faith by beating Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury 3-6, 6-3 (18-16).
It was a finish worthy of the theatre that preceded it, as Kyrgios, one of the biggest servers in the 24-team competition, placed his final effort on the line to convert Australia’s fifth match point in the 30-minute tie-break. Great Britain had four match points – the most glaring lost opportunity was Murray’s overcooked volley at 12-11.
De Minaur, whose losing struggle against Evans lasted three hours and 23 minutes, 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 72 minutes to beat 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 match for Tim Henman’s men. It took Evans 20 minutes to get on the scoreboard, as De Minaur threatened to run away with it as Kyrgios had before him, but Evans fought back heroically.
Evans was aware the 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 40 minutes,” the Great Britain captain replied. A string of high-grade winners and a fighting hold, saving set point for 4-5, sapped his stamina but not his spirit.
Hewitt could be 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 set; at the other end, Henman and the British team gathered around their tired representative with encouraging words. 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.”
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.
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. Hewitt celebrated wildly.
De Minaur levelled with his fifth ace. Love-40 down in the ninth game, he took a long break to change broken shoelaces. Evans held for 5-4 but was unhappy about the unscheduled pit stop.
They scrapped to 5-5. 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.
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 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. Then 5-2 up, fighting De Minaur and cramp. He struck another winner. He owned four match points and the ball in hand. De Minaur hit a forehand wide.
Evans swore at the Australians, then shook hands with Hewitt. They will probably have a beer at some point to reminisce about an unforgettable sporting experience. It was Australia’s first loss in 11 matches and 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 [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.”
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. After 30 minutes, Kyrgios picked up De Minaur and carried him to the side of the court, where they collapsed in delirium.
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.