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Tennis From Monte Carlo • Rolex • Rublev Routs Rafa • All Hail the King of Clay • Brit Dan Evans

Daniel Evans of Britain reacts during his quarter-final match against David Goffin of Belgium at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

By Alix Ramsay

Ah, springtime on the red clay of Europe. This is what we are used to. There is nothing like it. And in this uncertain world gripped by the pandemic, it is nice to have a little normality to cling on to. So, as the flowers bloom and the birds cheep and chirrup, we come – as we always do at this time of year – to admire the king of clay. Yes, we are here to admire Dan Evans.

Do not adjust your glasses, do not shake your laptop, phone or device of choice; you did read that right: Dan Evans. From seemingly nowhere, Evans (or Evo to his mates), has powered his way through to the semi-finals of the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters, his first taste of life at the sharp end of a Masters event.

But we will get to Evo in a minute.

The former king of clay is on his way home. Rafa Nadal was beaten by Andrey Rublev (and his own fallibilities) 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 on Friday night. After two matches of simple and easy control in Monaco, Rafa was on the back foot from the very first game against the Russian. The serve was misfiring, the groundstrokes were mistimed and he was in all sorts of bother from the outset. And let’s not talk about the seven double faults.

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during his quarter final match against Andrey Rublev of Russia at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament 2021. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

Rublev was very, very good. He was walloping the ball as if his life depended upon it. And he and his forehand never, ever wavered. Where some lesser light might have got the shakes having taken the first set, Rublev didn’t. Where some lesser light may have wilted when they lost the second set, Rublev didn’t. Rublev stuck to his guns; he did what had earned him breaks of serve in the previous rounds and he thundered into the semi-finals. He was controlled and relentless from start to finish. But when the match was over, he still sounded in awe of his beaten foe.

“To be in the situation of Rafa, knowing that you are the best player on clay and you have that pressure every time, I think for him must be incredibly tough every time,” Rublev gushed (Nadal being his idol). “I’m in shock knowing the way he is playing under this pressure and that’s why he is a legend. It’s easy to play when you have nothing to expect but, in his position, when you have to win on a clay court and he is doing this every time, it’s amazing.”

Andrey Rublev reacts during his quarter final match against Rafael Nadal at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

But Rublev won nonetheless. And he won in style. Rafa was in no doubt about that.

“Easy: he played well, he deserve more than me,” Nadal said. “I fighted, yeah. That’s the positive thing, I was there. But you can’t expect win against a player like him losing my serve I don’t know how many times, but too many. No chance like this. Six, seven times? It’s too much.

“He played well. That’s true. He played great. He played aggressive, as I knew. Well done for him. Happy for him. He’s a great guy. Wish him all the best.”

Rublev now plays Casper Ruud who beat Fabio Fognini 6-4, 6-3. And the Russian is not expecting that to be easy.

“He’s playing really well,” Rublev said. “I’ve known him since really long time and every match with him was drama match. We had really great rallies, really great level of tennis. So is going to be super tough and he’s in great shape now – he finished much earlier than me today so we see what’s going to happen tomorrow. I will try to recover as best as I can and do my best tomorrow.”

But now back to the new king of clay….

Evo, the world No.33, had not won a match on the red dirt in two years and was happy to admit that it was not his favourite surface. He likes to serve and volley, does Evo, and clay does not allow for a lot of that. But Evo is a smart bloke and at the age of 30, he knows what suits him. So he plays his game, his way despite the crushed brick beneath his feet.

That he beat Novak Djokovic on Thursday – and did it in straight sets – was remarkable (see the report of m’colleague Ricky Dimon). Unbelievable, even. But every multiple grand slam winner can have off days and upsets are not unknown. But that Evo should then back that up with a long, gruelling quarter-final win over David Goffin, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 – and show no signs of a let down from the previous match – was simply outstanding.

Djokovic’s assessment of Evo was nothing but positive.

“He has a lot of variety in his game,” the world No.1 said. “He uses slice so efficiently. He’s quick around the court. He serves and volleys. He’s got a really all-around game. It’s really a nice player to watch, not a great player to play against. Lots of talent. He’s a very good player, no doubt about it.”

Then again, his follow up, the explanation of exactly what went wrong against the man from Birmingham, was somewhat less gracious. The cause of his bad feeling on court had started the previous day but, he said: “I don’t want to talk about it. Should have and could have done much, much better. I mean, just awful performance. I can’t take anything positive away from this match.

“I mean, just one of these things you have to accept. I guess you have to move on. It’s not the first neither the last loss, but definitely leaves a bitter feeling exiting the court this way.”

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his third round match against Daniel Evans of Britain at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

Goffin, who spent two and three quarter hours being driven to distraction by Evo, cut straight to the chase: “It was only him who didn’t believe he was able to play well on clay,” he said of Evo.

“He has a lot of talent. He’s able to change tactics when he needs to. He’s very smart, very precise. When he feels down, he moves forward, makes shorter rallies. He can feel when you need to make the opponent play or when you need to make the points shorter.

“Even on clay he’s moving very well. He has good legs. He found solutions today on clay. It’s tough to play against him. On paper he’s not a clay-courter, but today the clay was heavy, the balls were not bouncing high, and he was able to do his own cooking. This is why he was difficult to move around.”

Daniel Evans in action during his quarter final match against David Goffin at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

And after that marathon quarter-final, Evo headed back on court to team up with Neal Skupski to reach the semi-final of the doubles, too: the Brummie/Scouser team beat Raven Klaasen and Ben McLachlan 1-6, 7-6, 10-4.

Evo will play Stefanos Tsitsipas (who was eased into the semis when Alejandro Davidovic Fokina retired after one set in the quarters) on Saturday. They have played twice before and each time, once on clay and once on a hard court, the Greek has won hands down. Then again, these are strange times.

Long live the king of clay.