NEW YORK—Tennis has been looking for a player to show us how to attack the net again. Has he been hiding in plain sight all along? That’s what I started to wonder as I watched 26-year-old, 64th-ranked Daniel Evans of England—a man once referred to by a London paper as “mouthy, blokey and a champion swearer”—work his net-rushing magic for the better part of four hours against Stan Wawrinka on Saturday night.
Evans and Wawrinka brought the first week in Louis Armstrong Stadium to a close, and the crowd in that old arena to its feet, in the best match of the tournament so far. Evans, who has never been ranked higher than No. 60, pushed the third-seeded Wawrinka to the limit. Up two sets to one, playing fearlessly and gobbling up balls at the net, he reached match point at 6-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker. After Wawrinka saved it with a forehand volley, Evans had a golden opportunity to reach match point again when, at 7-7, he set up for a sure put-away overhead. Except that he didn’t put it away. Instead, Evans hit the ball right back to Wawrinka and eventually lost the point.
“I just hit it to the wrong side,” a morose Evans said afterward. “Actually hit it down the middle. The small things in those matches make big differences. Why I hit it down the middle ... is beyond me.”
Evans, the resident ne’er-do-well of British tennis, a talented player who has traditionally enjoyed his parties more than his training sessions, showed off all of those talents over this match’s four hours and two minutes. Unable to trade body blows with the stronger Wawrinka, Evans sent his one-handed slice backhand skidding low, and then, once he had forced Stan to leave him a mid-court ball, he bolted for the net as soon as he could. Evans’ tactic, and his relentlessness in applying it, worked. He won 41 of 63 points at net and hit 42 winners. In the process, Evans put on a clinic in old-fashioned, opportunistic tennis—what we used to call the transition game—and provided a template for how his fellow baseliners and soft servers can learn to finish points at net.
His ability to close so authoritatively was a stark contrast with Wawrinka, a player who often doesn’t move forward to take advantage of the damage he has done with his ground strokes. But Wawrinka is ranked 61 places higher for a reason, and that reason is the raw strength of his shots. In the tight moments, and in the deciding set, that strength made the difference; Stan finished with 58 winners and 12 aces. Somehow, at 8-8 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, teetering on the brink of defeat, he came up with one of the biggest and most unlikely aces of his career: a second serve that caught both lines and curved out of Evans’ disbelieving reach. The Brit rolled his eyes at the sky; the Swiss never trailed again. He won, 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (8), 6-2.
Evans had little left in the fifth, and his serve deserted him; he would finish with 16 double faults. Edgy and chatty in general, he got into a late argument with the trainer over whether he was cramping—the trainer said he was, and wouldn’t treat him for the foot injury Evans claimed to have. By then, though, Evans had bigger problems. He was struggling to put the end of the fourth set out of his mind.
“Obviously in the fifth set against him, yeah, I was tired,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say physically tired … I lost that match because I made the wrong decision on the smash.”
Wawrinka moves on to a fourth-round encounter with Illya Marchenko, who advanced when opponent Nick Kyrgios retired. Evans heads home.
“I’ve never been away this long,” he said, sounding homesick.
Hopefully he will return to tennis’ biggest stages soon; the game could use more of what he gave us on Saturday.