Dan Evans, who has so often flattered to deceive in the past, produced the performance of his life here last night to knock out Kei Nishikori, the world No 12, on the opening day of the US Open. The 23-year-old from Birmingham, having qualified to play in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time, swept aside one of the game’s outstanding young talents with a stunning mix of attacking forehands, cunningly sliced backhands and bold forays to the net.
Evans, who needed Wimbledon wild cards to make his only two previous appearances at Grand Slam events and was playing in a Futures tournament in Wrexham this time last year, crushed Nishikori 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in just an hour and 57 minutes. The 23-year-old Japanese appeared totally flummoxed by Evans’ game as the British No 3 played with a confidence that belied his position at No 179 in the world rankings.
It was the most remarkable result by an emerging British player since Andy Murray bridged a gap of 299 places in the rankings to beat Radek Stepanek, the world No 13, in the Scot’s first Wimbledon appearance in 2005. Evans is the first British man other than Murray, Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski to beat a top 15 opponent in a Grand Slam tournament for more than 20 years.
Nishikori may lack the big weapons of some of the top men but is a great shot maker and fine athlete. He admitted afterwards that he had never seen Evans play. Evans’ reliance on slice on his backhand can be a weakness against some opponents, but Nishikori had little idea how to cope with the low, skidding balls that kept landing near his baseline.
The Briton, who will play Australia’s Bernard Tomic in the second round, went for his shots on his forehand, attacked Nishikori’s serve at every opportunity and was never afraid to come to the net, where he struck some fine volleys. Not for the first time, his attacking game bore comparison with Henman’s.
Evans showed his resilience to come back from an early break in both the first two sets. When Nishikori served at 4-5 in the opener Evans created set point with a superb backhand volley and converted it after a big forehand return. He took the second set after outfoxing Nishikori with a sliced backhand and quickly took control of the third after going 3-0 up.
Rarely short of confidence, Evans said he had always fancied his chances against Nishikori and dismissed the suggestion that he had had an advantage because the Japanese was not familiar with his game. “It’s not that hard to work out how I play after a set, so I think I was just better than him,” Evans said.
The last four months, beginning with his fine performances against Russia in the Davis Cup, have seen a huge turnaround in Evans’ fortunes. Although he was always regarded as a significant talent, by his own admission he lacked the dedication to make the most of his ability.
Having had his funding stopped by the Lawn Tennis Association last year for the second time following off-the-court misdemeanours, Evans was struggling to finance any overseas travel and did not play outside Britain or Ireland for more than 12 months. The $53,000 (about £34,000) in prize-money which he is now guaranteed from this tournament is nearly three times as much as he earned in the whole of last year.
During his difficult times Evans’ father promised to support him and since basing himself at the LTA’s National Tennis Centre at Roehampton the player has knuckled down. He is particularly grateful to the LTA for providing a coach and a fitness trainer to accompany him this summer.
World No 367 five months ago, Evans is now up to No 179 after reaching two Challenger finals in North America. He is likely to replace James Ward as British No 2 after the US Open and could also supplant the Londoner as the second singles player behind Murray in the Davis Cup next month.
Evans said he had always believed that he could break through at the highest level, but admitted that the route to the top looked like “a blocked path”. He added: “It just shows that you can do it if you get your stuff together and just win some matches.”
Laura Robson, the first British woman to be seeded at a Grand Slam tournament for 26 years, also got off to a winning start, beating Spain’s Lourdes Dominguez Lino 7-5, 6-0. The 19-year-old Briton has played only one tournament since Wimbledon after suffering an injury to her right wrist, but after an uncertain start struck the ball well to earn a second-round meeting with France’s Caroline Garcia.
Asked about Evans, Robson commented on the Jesus tattoo he wears on his arm. “If you’ve ever spoken to him, he’s really not the most religious person,” she said with a laugh. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” Evans, told about Robson’s comments, responded in kind. “I’m not sure about her hairstyle sometimes,” he joked.