Tim Henman has stepped in as an unexpected mentor for Dan Evans, the man filling Andy Murray’s size 12s here this weekend, as Great Britain plot a Davis Cup surprise against France.
The odds are clearly stacked against the visitors. It is not just the absence of Murray that will hinder them, but also the choice of clay – a surface on which Evans has not won a match since 2013.
But strange things can happen on the red stuff, as Henman demonstrated with a deep run in the 2004 French Open. Having arrived at Roland Garros with an extremely moderate record – nine wins and eight defeats – he shocked the tennis world by serve-volleying his way to the semi-finals, where he led Guillermo Coria by a set and a break before eventually succumbing in four sets.
“Tim just sent quite a long text to Hilts [Evans’s coach Mark Hilton] and he relayed that to me,” said Evans, whose ranking of No. 44 makes him the British No. 1 for this tie. “I have got to keep going forwards like I normally do - not fall into the trap of being too defensive - and hopefully that is how I will play the weekend.”
Great Britain’s preparation extended not only to consulting Henman – whose combination of silky volleys and a one-armed backhand make him a perfect stylistic match for Evans – but to Henman’s former coach Paul Annacone as well.
As the former head coach of the Lawn Tennis Association, Annacone knows Evans’s game first hand, and has also worked with Roger Federer – another classical technician who broke the clay-court template when he won the French Open in 2009.
“It is normal to reach out to a lot of people,” said the British captain Leon Smith, “and in this case it is particularly relevant and has been really useful. The main thing is having that positive mindset. Evo is doing very, very well [on the ATP tour] and one of the main reasons is that he plays a bit differently. That’s an asset on any surface.”
Smith said on Wednesday that he was not expecting Andy Murray to turn out as a supporter this weekend, as he did for last year’s quarter-final in Belgrade. The world No. 1 has returned to light training this week, after resting the soft-tissue tear in his right elbow that caused him to miss the Miami Open, and is still expected to fulfil his commitments at an exhibition event – the Match for Africa 3 – involving Federer on Monday.
As for the French, they announced a change of singles nomination on Wednesday, with world No. 68 Jeremy Chardy replacing the higher-ranked Gilles Simon on grounds of superior form. Evans will thus face Chardy tomorrow, while the French No. 1 Lucas Pouille plays Kyle Edmund.
This will only be the second time since 2005 that France have fielded a Davis Cup team featuring none of the so-called “Four Musketeers” – Simon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet. Not that their captain, the debonair Yannick Noah, is likely to be overly concerned.
“France are pretty greedy about getting guys in the top 100,” said Smith “They have got amazing strength and depth. But anything is possible this weekend.”