Dan Evans gave himself and everyone else a reminder of his talents by pushing Roger Federer on Rod Laver Arena in the second round of the Australian Open.
The 28-year-old from Birmingham reached his career high two years ago by defeating Marin Cilic in Melbourne to make the fourth round before the self-inflicted exile of a cocaine ban left him having to start again.
He has worked his way back to 189 in the rankings in less than a year and should return quickly to the top 100 if he can maintain the form he showed here in a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-3 defeat to the two-time defending champion.
The person Evans most needed to convince may well have been himself. He admitted afterwards that he has struggled to motivate himself at the smaller tournaments he has needed to play, with the nadir coming at the beginning of this month when he lost in the second round of a Challenger in Playford.
He said: “I think I needed a good result in a bigger tournament to give me some confidence to go back to that and do some damage in those tournaments, rather than thinking I’m better than them but not really have any form to say that I am. I practised with Andy [Murray] last week on Rod Laver and I said to [coach] Dave [Felgate], ‘If we’re playing here next week or the week after, something good’s happened.’
“I ended up playing Roger on there. It’s funny because I was in a terrible place after Playford. I was doubting myself.”
The main frustration about Evans has been that his talent has never been in doubt. Blessed with a delicate touch, high tennis IQ, fine athletic abilities and a strong serve for a man of 5ft 9in, Evans is a tennis player for the purists, and he earned the ultimate accolade when Federer said afterwards: “It feels like playing a mirror a little bit.”
In typically self-deprecating fashion, Evans said: “I think he meant in game style rather than level. It was a good match. There are similarities but he obviously does a lot of things better than me.”
Evans’ big chance came in the first-set tie-break, which he led 5-3 after sending a forehand pass flying past Federer only to miss two volleys. He also recovered from a break down in the second set but again the tie-break went the Swiss star’s way.
“No regrets,” said Evans. “I put my game on the court and some matches you come off second guessing. I don’t think I did any of that today.”
Federer backed Evans to climb back up the rankings, saying: “I have high regard for Dan. I think he’s a good player. I think he can be top 50 again, no problem.”
Evans has never sought sympathy for a situation he knows is entirely his own fault, but that did not make it any easier to handle. A year ago, he was at home in Cheltenham refusing to watch any of the Australian Open.
“The nine months I had off were terrible,” he said. “I was in a bad place. I was pretty much depressed, actually. I didn’t think I’d ever play again.
“I don’t know how I ended up still having the people around me who were there. I was difficult to be around. Obviously I owe them a lot. That’s obviously what you’ve got family and friends for. Hopefully they enjoyed this week as much as I did.”
Katie Boulter also put in a creditable performance against a high-level opponent, going down 6-3, 6-4 to 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka, who has been hotly tipped as a grand slam winner very soon.
Boulter, 22, was trying to back up her impressive victory over Ekaterina Makarova in round one, and she said: “I’m a little bit disappointed. I thought I stuck with her pretty well. It’s quite encouraging for me to play someone like that and not play my best tennis and still be in there with a chance to win a set or two.”